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  • by Yonah Freemark
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Should the U.S. spend $1 trillion on new infrastructure?

» Donald Trump wants to make a big splash by supporting a huge new infrastructure bill. But we don’t want to end up with the construction of massive new highways from coast to coast.

After six years of proposals for significant new transportation funding being proposed by President Obama, and then being shot down immediately by intransigent Republican Congresspeople, infrastructure is suddenly the talk of Washington. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton proposed major infrastructure packages during the campaign, and the Trump transition team includes a proposal for transportation investment as one of its top priorities. As I’ll describe below, this proposal would likely primarily fund transportation projects that exacerbate climate change and encourage exurban sprawl.

We must remember that the primary goal of transit advocates should not be to simply get projects built. It should be to create more livable, less carbon-intensive cities by shifting the country’s transportation system away from personal automobiles.

The nascent administration has offered few details other than a 10-page fact sheet released by a consultant in October. This proposal would release $137 billion in tax credits over ten years to private companies spending on infrastructure; in exchange, those companies would be expected to raise $167 billion in total equity, supporting a potential $1 trillion in total new construction, amounting to the largest U.S. infrastructure binge since the construction of the Interstate Highway System. In contrast to the vast majority of public works in the U.S. today, projects would have to raise user fees to pay back initial loans and corporate equity contributions.

This proposal, though not fully developed, has been widely critiqued.

Most importantly, perhaps, Ben Fried contends in Streetsblog that supporting any Trump Administration proposal is suspect; “There is no moral basis for collaboration on Trump’s infrastructure agenda—because enabling any aspect of the Trump policy platform will grease the skids for enacting the entire Trump worldview. No piece of infrastructure is worth that risk.” Whatever the benefits of new infrastructure, Fried suggests, the Trump Administration is so problematic that we must fight any of its initiatives.

From a financial perspective, the tax credits would do nothing to support projects that don’t make money, meaning all hope is lost for fixing Flint’s lead-in-water problem through this legislation, for example. The plan would provide automatic 10 percent pretax profits to contractors, just as a matter of general policy. Credits could be distributed even to projects that were already planned, meaning that there is no guarantee that the investment would actually increase investment or produce new jobs. Meanwhile, the proposal provides no source to actually pay for those tax credits, meaning they could be “weaponized” to “justify future cuts in health care, education and social programs,” as Ronald Klein has put it.

Writing in The New York Times, Paul Krugman focuses on the proposal’s secondary effect, which would be shifting infrastructure from public to private hands. This is “not a plan to borrow $1 trillion and spend it on much-needed projects,” he writes. “It is, instead, supposed to involve having private investors do the work both of raising money and building the projects—with the aid of a huge tax credit that gives them back 82 percent of the equity they put in.” Krugman’s point is that the proposed tax credits are, in reality, giveaways to companies that will then own and operate infrastructure permanently at little to no costs to themselves. The plan, in this way, is privatizing future public assets.

These are, undoubtedly, important concerns that put into question not only Mr. Trump’s motivations on the development of this infrastructure bill, but also his policy agenda on several fronts.

Beyond the financial mechanisms and the question of whether to invest in public or private construction, though, the issue of what a new infrastructure bill might fund has been little mentioned in the press. And the reality is that, for the future of the transportation system, the types of projects funded may ultimately have more of an impact than the way they’re funded.

At the heart of the infrastructure proposal is the requirement that new projects built should be self-funding in some form. All the loans that government equity-through-tax-credits are supposed to support will have to be paid back through some sort of user fee. What consequence will this have?

For one, as noted above, many of the projects funded will probably have already been planned, meaning that government funding will replace private-sector investments that would have occurred anyway. Two, this package will massively preference projects that are designed to be profitable—not projects that may serve the greater good. In such, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising for the primary beneficiaries of this legislation to be oil and gas pipelines.

In the transportation space, as many have noted, profit-motivated investments will mean, overwhelmingly, toll highways. Given that the vast majority of transit lines—perhaps all of them in the U.S.—are deficitary, and the fact that it is inconceivable to imagine developing pedestrian and biking projects that charge customers to use them, a transportation investment structured on these lines seems likely to be very auto-oriented, at least compared to current federal transportation expenditures, which are distributed 1-to-4 transit-to-highways.

But I’ll take a step further. What if, somehow, the infrastructure bill were focused on transportation and required that investments followed a similar modal ratio as they do today? If the bill guaranteed $200 billion in transit investments and $800 billion in highway spending over ten years,* would it be worth it?

I am skeptical. We must remember that the primary goal of transit advocates should not be to simply get projects built. It should be to create more livable, less carbon-intensive cities by shifting the country’s transportation system away from personal automobiles.

At the heart of the issue is that fact that new transit infrastructure is typically only moderately successful in encouraging people to get out of their cars, while new highway infrastructure is usually very good at getting people into their cars. In other words, the net effect of a tripling of the nation’s expenditures on transportation—even if those expenditures were spent in similar proportion as today—would be not a reaffirming of the status quo; it would represent a dramatic incentive to get many more people driving.

Why am I convinced that a massive increase in overall transportation expenditures would do more than just reinforce existing trends? For one, the reality is that exurban or interurban highways are simply much cheaper to build than urban transit. Take Texas’ SH 130, a four-lane toll highway that was extended by 40 miles in 2012 for a cost of a bit more than $1.3 billion.—that’s about $33 million a mile. For comparison, Denver’s 12.1-mile West light rail line, which opened in 2013, cost $707 million, or about $60 million a mile. Minneapolis’ 9.5-mile Green Line light rail, which opened in 2014, cost $957 million, or about $100 million a mile.

In other words, for the same transportation dollar, an investment in new highways can produce dozens of miles of multi-lane, grade-separated highways in rural areas while an investment in urban transit can mean relatively little new capacity.

No new investment of any sort would likely encourage better use of existing infrastructure, thereby improving the performance of existing transit lines and supporting infill development rather than greenfield construction.  

Two, given the fact that a Trump transportation bill requires projects to contribute user fees, it seems very unlikely to contribute to the reconstruction of the Interstate System, since political and public support for the tolling of existing roads is basically nonexistent. This means funds will go to new projects, not renovations.

What would be the direct consequences of thousands of new miles of grade-separated highways? Massive incentives for increased sprawling, unwalkable development, destruction of greenfield and agricultural land, and disincentives for investment in urban infill. Significantly more vehicular travel generated through induced demand. Massive new carbon emissions.

What would be the direct consequences of hundreds of new miles of new transit investments, funded through the same mechanisms? Potentially significant additional transit ridership—but maybe not; what is more likely in most cases is a redirection of riders from buses to trains. New transit-oriented development might surround many new lines, but given that most public investment is being directed to suburban highways, and the simultaneous political resistance to increased density, there likely wouldn’t be much new development from a relative perspective.**

Where does this leave us? For the good of our environment and for the good of our cities, doing nothing would likely be better than supporting this infrastructure package—even if we ignore the potentially disastrous political and financial concerns about this infrastructure bill noted by others. More transit investment simply isn’t worth it in the context of far more massive new highway spending that would overwhelm any potential benefits being derived from transit projects. Indeed, no new investment of any sort would likely encourage better use of existing infrastructure, thereby improving the performance of existing transit lines and supporting infill development rather than greenfield construction.

Ironically, losing out on the massive stream of potential federal funding doesn’t mean that new transit projects have to grind to a halt. Indeed, the results of local referenda this election reinforced the notion that when presented with a generous transit plan, voters in many cities will jump at the opportunity to tax themselves to pay for it. Indeed, the large majorities that came out to support better transit—and pay for it—in Atlanta, the Bay Area, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Raleigh, and Seattle*** were voting for more livable, less car-dominated communities. Even though each of those plans rely on federal funding to support full implementation, even without support from Washington, much of what they propose can be completed.

Transit agencies will make the reasonable argument that they need funding to bring their systems back to a state of good repair. But this infrastructure bill won’t be of much use to address that problem, since it focuses on expansion projects. And new highways that suck ridership out of the transit system won’t help much, either.

Suggesting that new infrastructure funding isn’t worth it given what will be funded comes close to heretical in a political environment in which such investment has suddenly been identified by politicians on both the right and left as the solution for whatever it is that supposedly ails America. But we need to think long and hard about what kind of society we want before spending billions of dollars for new transportation projects all over the place.

* This would represent roughly a tripling of federal transportation spending, since the U.S. Department of Transportation currently distributes about $50 billion in surface transportation funding annually.
** Of course there are many benefits of investing in public transit projects, and many transit projects will in fact result in many additional riders. But maximizing the benefits of new transit projects—particularly in a short time horizon—is difficult because of the realities of land use.
*** In Atlanta, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, more than 70 percents of voters expressed themselves in favor of the referenda.

On the ballot 2016

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» If passed, referenda in dozens of cities could expand funding for transportation across America.

This year’s U.S. election has overwhelmingly focused on the dynamics between the two presidential candidates, and for good reason: As I documented earlier this year, the policy differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on infrastructure are substantial. Control of the presidency and the U.S. Congress could dramatically alter the availability of funds for public transportation and active transportation projects; it is worth emphasizing that the Republican Party has repeatedly argued for the elimination of federal funding for transit, bike, and pedestrian programs while maintaining federal support for highways. At the state level, party control matters for transit as well; North Carolina’s GOP, for example, cut off most funding for light rail last year through a legislative maneuver.

But more is at stake, thanks to dozens of referenda offering voters the opportunity to support billions of dollars in new expenditures on public transportation. The

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Submission

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» Do we have the political will to build a different type of transportation system? Or will the rise of autonomous vehicles simply reinforce existing norms?

There is now no debate over whether automated technology will revolutionize the transportation system—the question is just when it will do so. Industry watchers who four years ago predicted it would take a decade and a half to realize fully driverless cars now suggest they’ll be online, everywhere, by 2020.

Indeed, just this week, Tesla announced that all of the vehicles it is producing, including its newest, cheapest Model 3, will have “full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.” Its cars will feature eight cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors, designed to evaluate the world around the cars and respond immediately. The technology won’t be activated immediately; it will collect data as drivers use the cars to improve its

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The boundaries that divide our transit systems

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» In New York City, transit providers create new services to handle disruptions—even when existing lines can support the load.

Beginning early this month, PATH—the metro rail system operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that connects Manhattan and Northern New Jersey—began installing new signals, forcing the closure of a section of its network in New York City. In the process, the agency is providing a bus shuttle service as a substitute over the course of 17 weekends, shuttling passengers on an above-ground route between the Midtown business district and the World Trade Center, where PATH trains continue to run.

All of this might make sense under normal circumstances; in fact, in places like Chicago where rail lines have been shut down, bus service replacement has worked well. Yet in New York, the service being replaced runs on a corridor shared by other subway lines*—but

Continue reading The boundaries that divide our transit systems »

Both parties claim support for investing in infrastructure. But how will they do it?

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» The Republican Party, despite its claims about the importance of infrastructure—and big promises from Donald Trump—pushes a more limited federal role. Democrats, in line with Hillary Clinton, advocate large new investments.

During an election year where trade and terrorism have taken center stage, it’s hardly surprising issues related to transportation have played a limited role in the national discussion about how to move the U.S. forward. Some have noted that urban policy has largely been ignored, despite the fact that many American cities continue to face considerable problems related to public investment, poverty, and economic growth.

Yet the reality is that the Democratic and Republican parties and their respective candidates for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have laid out positions on the future of the nation’s transportation system through party platforms, candidate issue memos, and public statements. The approval of the two parties’ platforms over the past two

Continue reading Both parties claim support for investing in infrastructure. But how will they do it? »