Our Most Vital Infrastructure Isn’t “Crumbling.” It Hasn’t Been Built Yet.

To fight climate change, we need a new vision for green transit.

Theo Anderson

New and better roads motivate people who might have biked, or walked, to drive instead. They attract new businesses and homes. And they instill values. They emphasize that this is our priority: car culture. (Micah Sheldon/ Flickr)

There isn’t much down­side to propos­ing more infra­struc­ture spend­ing. That’s the gener­ic name for every­thing from dams and lev­ees to rail­road tracks and schools, but it most­ly means roads and bridges. Hillary Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump have both made infra­struc­ture spend­ing cen­tral to their cam­paigns, with Clin­ton call­ing for $275 bil­lion in new spend­ing over five years and Trump mock­ing her plan as too small. He told Fox Busi­ness Net­work in August that Clinton’s num­ber was a frac­tion of what we’re talk­ing about.” Trump offered few specifics of his own but did say that he would dou­ble Clinton’s pro­pos­al, and you’re real­ly going to need more than that,” since we have many, many bridges that are in dan­ger of falling.”

"There is widespread agreement on building infrastructure, and a Republican presidential nominee who’s calling for at least double the spending proposed by the Democrat. What’s the path forward?"

He won’t get push­back on that last thought. It’s past the point of tired cliché to call our infra­struc­ture crum­bling,” and a well-pub­li­cized report card that’s put out by the Amer­i­can Soci­ety of Civ­il Engi­neers rein­forces the point. The most recent ver­sion gave the nation’s infra­struc­ture an over­all grade of D+, with roads receiv­ing a D and bridges a C+.

As Repub­li­can poll­ster Frank Luntz not­ed in 2009, a near unan­i­mous 94 per­cent of Amer­i­cans are con­cerned about our nation’s infra­struc­ture.” Specif­i­cal­ly, 84 per­cent of the pub­lic wants more mon­ey spent by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment — and 83 per­cent wants more spent by state gov­ern­ments — to improve Amer­i­ca’s infra­struc­ture.” Things haven’t changed much since then. A poll released last year found that 84 per­cent of respon­dents thought mod­ern­iza­tion of the nation’s infra­struc­ture” should be a high pri­or­i­ty for Con­gress, pro­vid­ed their city saw direct benefits.

It’s a weird­ly favor­able moment for gov­ern­ment invest­ment. There is wide­spread agree­ment on build­ing infra­struc­ture, and a Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee who’s call­ing for at least dou­ble the spend­ing pro­posed by the Demo­c­rat. What’s the path forward?

First, some skep­ti­cism. Infra­struc­ture is such a vague cat­e­go­ry with such broad gen­er­al sup­port that it cov­ers all man­ner of non­sense and lies. Trump, for exam­ple, has claimed that 61 per­cent of bridges in the Unit­ed States are in trou­ble.” The Fed­er­al High­way Admin­is­tra­tion puts the num­ber at 10 per­cent. And not every bridge that’s ever been built needs to be main­tained. Some need to be torn down.

The 800-pound goril­la of infra­struc­ture — road build­ing and repair — needs an even clos­er look. There is con­sid­er­able doubt whether the crum­bling roads and bridges” frame­work even fits. In 2013, the Rea­son Foun­da­tion released a report on the nation’s roads and bridges over a two-decade span. It found that in all but two states, their con­di­tion had actu­al­ly improved in at least five of sev­en met­rics, includ­ing con­ges­tion lev­els and the qual­i­ty of urban and rur­al roads. And the study end­ed in 2008 — right before Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s stim­u­lus pack­age tar­get­ed infra­struc­ture for tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in new investment.

The Rea­son Foun­da­tion has a lib­er­tar­i­an agen­da, and its report should be tak­en with that grain of salt. But, in either case, whether they have crum­bled or improved, roads are invest­ments that were made by our par­ents and grand­par­ents,” as Clin­ton puts it. She intends that as an argu­ment for invest­ing more in them. But there’s anoth­er take­away: They were built in a dif­fer­ent era, for a dif­fer­ent era.

We still using them heav­i­ly, of course. Amer­i­cans drove more than 280 bil­lion miles in June — a 3 per­cent increase from June 2015 — and low gas prices mean that we’re on a path that could estab­lish a new record for gas con­sump­tion. A big rea­son we use the roads so much is that we keep invest­ing in them — not just for repair, but in expand­ing them and build­ing new ones.

It turns out that peo­ple use the modes of trans­porta­tion avail­able to them. When it’s eas­i­ly acces­si­ble, they use more of it. That fair­ly obvi­ous truth has been well doc­u­ment­ed regard­ing roads. In the name of reduc­ing con­ges­tion, gov­ern­ments expand them — and soon they’re just as con­gest­ed as they were. It’s called induced demand. New and bet­ter roads moti­vate peo­ple who might have biked, or walked, to dri­ve instead. They attract new busi­ness­es and homes. And they instill val­ues. They empha­size that this is our pri­or­i­ty: car culture.

We, no doubt, do need to spend more on the nuts and bolts of our exist­ing infra­struc­ture. But what we need even more urgent­ly is new vision — a nod to the real­i­ty that we’ve entered the era of intense cli­mate change, and that the old mod­els and modes of think­ing don’t serve us in this new era.

In Seoul, South Korea, in the ear­ly 2000s, a city plan­ner con­ceived such a bold vision. He pro­posed to tear down a four-lane, ele­vat­ed free­way that ran over a pol­lut­ed stream in the city’s cen­ter. The free­way was used by 168,000 cars each day. He want­ed to replace it with a 3.6‑mile park along the water. The plan­ner con­vinced a may­oral can­di­date to make the plan a cen­tral item of his plat­form. The can­di­date won. The free­way was torn down. The river­side park was com­plet­ed in 2005. Its cas­cad­ing effects includ­ed the revi­tal­iza­tion of Seoul’s cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict, momen­tum to restore urban rivers and streams across the nation and the reduc­tion of roads and inter­sec­tions to make way for more pub­lic plazas.

Is it real­is­tic to hope that Clin­ton might pro­pose some­thing sim­i­lar­ly bold and ambi­tious on a nation­al scale? Of course not. But it wasn’t real­is­tic to expect that Trump would run on, and win the GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion with, the idea of build­ing a mas­sive wall along the nation’s south­ern border.

As Trump knows, big infra­struc­ture projects have the pow­er to inspire and gal­va­nize peo­ple. They sig­nal val­ues and pri­or­i­ties and cre­ate a vision. Right now, in the unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry of esca­lat­ing cli­mate change that we’ve entered, we des­per­ate­ly need Clin­ton and the Democ­rats to pro­pose, not just more mon­ey for the infra­struc­ture that’s in dis­re­pair, or more invest­ment in old sys­tems and ways of think­ing, but an entire­ly new way forward.

They might be pleas­ant­ly sur­prised at who — and what — would fol­low their lead.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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