Chat: What infrastructure do we need, and how do we build it?

Image by Ildar Sagdejev licensed under Creative Commons.

Welcome to our second contributor chat, a new format we're trying out where contributors sit down for an online discussion of an important subject. Today, Patrick Kennedy, Tracy Loh, and Joanne Pierce traded thoughts on whether building infrastructure means pitting equality against equity, and how government can make more choices that actually benefit constituents. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

Jonathan: Hi! Today we're talking about an article by Angela Glover Blackwell that ran in the New York Times this weekend. It starts out by saying that infrastructure is more than just roads and bridges.

Tracy (Tracy Loh, contributor): “Infrastructure is not just roads and bridges” was the title of the piece, but it was really about challenging the way infrastructure projects are prioritized and funded in the current system of federal aid. Blackwell was advancing a classic equality-vs-equity argument: should funds be dispensed evenly, like peanut butter spread on bread, or should money go to where the greatest need is?

Chuck Marohn is asking some of the same questions over at Strong Towns. It also brought to mind Chris Leinberger's recent piece in the Washington Monthly.

Joanne (Joanne Pierce, editorial board member): She was also talking more broadly about how our definition of infrastructure is too limited. Because we only think about it in terms of roads and bridges, we don't think about how the things we may take for granted (like running water and the internet) are unavailable for a lot of other people, especially the poor, people of color, and those in rural areas.

Tracy: If we can align the incentives of the players involved, we can build infrastructure that is actually necessary and while doing it quicker and at lower prices than we do now.

Patrick (Patrick Kennedy, contributor): I think an important question that also has to be addressed in the infrastructure funding paradigm is maintainability, specifically ensuring that years after the ribbon is cut that whatever the receiving government is has the ability to maintain the increased burden that initial capital investment might result in.

Tracy: Great point, Patrick - something that Marohn mentioned in his piece.

Patrick: Not that these investments aren't worthwhile, but one-off stimulus packages have the tendency to favor “shovel-ready” projects, but perhaps not those that have a sustainable funding source for maintenance purposes.

Tracy: The Blackwell piece reminded me of an explanation Veronica Davis gave me of how sidewalk infrastructure is funded in DC. Basically, every ward gets the same amount of money each year for sidewalks. Funds aren't distributed based on where sidewalk gaps are, or where constituents have requested sidewalks.

Joanne: That makes it hard for poorer communities to get ahead,  too. If everyone gets the same amount, the good sidewalks get better and the bad sidewalks improve, but still aren't as good. There's this constant disparity in equality.

Patrick: True, but perhaps that's not a bad thing for equity's sake. If you had a different system, essentially a slush fund for sidewalk repairs for instance, you might see repairs prioritized according to constituent complaints and 311 requests. Which probably would tend to favor more affluent, highly-educated portions of the District.

Tracy:  Veronica pointed out that the city won't put in a sidewalk unless a certain percentage of the abutting landowners agree. So, on some blocks, even if money is available for a sidewalk, it's not going to happen because the landowners don't want it. However, that doesn't mean that the money goes to another ward. It just means that it's used to rebuild existing sidewalks in the ward. So you end up with a comic situation where the same sidewalk is getting redone every couple years.

Joanne: Yeah, I think there's a social component to this, too. If you feel ignored (or if you are ignored), you may not be as likely to call for help. It reinforces the inequalities you already see and feel.

Patrick: The “every ward gets the same amount” is a bit arbitrary and is certainly more blunt than surgical, but oddly enough it might enforce a degree of equal treatment for wards 7 and 8.

Joanne: Equal in terms of how otherwise, wards 7 and 8 wouldn't get any money?

Patrick: I think most government agencies have a tendency to respond to the squeaky wheels, yes.

Tracy: Yes, Patrick, I think that is the general understanding that supports this status quo. What the Blackwell article made me wonder is: what would it take to do better? What kind of criteria or system could we dream up that would actually result in more sidewalks where they are needed? What would have to change, what would we need to be measuring? This sidewalk example is local and specific, but the same questions apply to the federal aid funding formula.

Patrick: I think more data helps. Someone was using Google Street View a year back and basically crowdsourcing repairs that needed to be made to pedestrian infrastructure, dividing up the labor of evaluating conditions across the city. Data is impartial, it can also be somewhat cold and divorced from context, but it's an important equalizer in terms of putting folks on a level playing field.

Joanne: To me, it's strange that people would oppose having sidewalks but if they did, local lawmakers could look for some kind of shared benefit. AGB uses an example like the “curb-cut effect” where something that was done to benefit one smaller group (people in wheelchairs) benefitted whole communities.

Tracy: One great point that Chris Leinberger brought up in his post is that we need to stop siloing by mode. The fact that the funds are only for sidewalks, and not for what local decisionmakers perceive as their greatest need, is part of what's driving the “waste.”

Patrick: Perhaps, but based on my experience we have plenty of need for sidewalk repairs that go unaddressed as-is.

Tracy: But I think Joanne raises a good point about the Blackwell piece: what the majority perceives as the greatest need is not always what in the long term has the greatest payoff.

Patrick: I mean, in government budgeting my view is that you don't want the money to be too fungible or else it literally becomes a slush fund with little accountability.

Tracy: True. This may be less applicable to this sidewalk example, but concerning federal funds I think part of the issue is that the funding formula favors some modes/types of infrastructure more than others.

Joanne: I agree. Whose projects are favored is also a factor. It's often people who are the loudest, who have the most time to organize and prepare to get something they want or to fight something they don't want.

Tracy: To motivate the kind of need-based decision making that Blackwell was writing about, it's important to remove distorting incentives like higher federal match rates for road projects. Basically right now under the current surface transportation funding authorization, new highway construction projects that receive federal funds require a 20% match, but new transit starts require a 50% match.

Patrick: But that's the basic trade-off of democracy, right? It's majority rules, with hopefully some checks to prevent minority/marginalized groups from being shut out, but it's tough to draw the line as far as where politicians and government officials accountable ultimately to electoral majorities are supposed to then go against the wishes of those majorities.

Though I agree completely that where formula funds and such are concerned, it's probably true that what's driving them is less so an explicit majoritarian policy push and more just inertia from legacy policymaking decisions made 50 or 60 years ago

Tracy: Exactly.

Joanne: That's a good point. It's hard to undo old habits. The *can* be undone though!

Tracy: I think the important point of the Blackwell piece is that there are two different categories of “need” that we currently don't have the policy flexibility to respond to: WHO and WHAT.

Joanne: I saw an article today about how Akron, Ohio's population shrunk and as a result, the city closed a highway and is using it as a proving ground for a public park. So even when you've had infrastructure, some cities can embrace change and remix it for something else.

Patrick: Especially in the current federal environment, where inertia reigns because gridlock has made agreeing on a course change virtually impossible. I think a lot of the solution to this rests with vesting more power and revenue-raising capability in local governments.

Patrick: In our system that's tough because—with the exception of a lot of the Great Society-era federal programs—devolution as a political concept in this country tends to conjure up 10th amendment associations where everything gets vested with the states.

Joanne: Like taxing to get dedicated Metro funding?

Tracy: I agree with Patrick regarding the “WHAT,” in other words that we need more local decision making power about what infrastructure investments we make. However, I think the federal government could play a progressive role with the “WHO,” using formulas and testing to direct funds to the communities that need it the most.

Patrick: Joanne, exactly. Why should Bill Howell, or Kirk Cox—or whoever from downstate in the Virginia House of Delegates decide that Northern Virginia municipalities shouldn't be able to tax themselves for Metro?

Tracy: Absolutely.

Joanne: Exactly! I'm curious about whether the best (or one of the best) ways to invest in a more progressive “who” is to elect people who are more representative of the areas that need this funding the most. Btw, Virginia residents vote in the gubernatorial primary tomorrow. We'll see what shakes out in terms of candidates who will support a more expansive definition of infrastructure.

Patrick: Inasmuch as a lot of poor decisions about urban renewal and highway building were made in the middle of the century, there were a lot of good ideas from that era as well that deserve new life. The concept of MPOs, for instance, and encouraging metropolitan/regional planning and governance.

Tracy: Joanne, I think leadership is a huge piece of this. Of course I am inclined to say that having run for local office, but at the end of the day, most decisions aren't referendums on policies - we use elections to choose leaders that will fight for certain overarching priorities.

Joanne: I'm interested in state government pushing for a public works program again. The Works Progress Administration was a huge part of creating jobs and investing in arts, culture, education, and other benefits.

Patrick: Unfortunately, I just don't think states settled on boundaries from hundreds of years ago are especially meaningful groupings of people for determining political priorities.

Tracy: Patrick, I agree. Regional governance is a missing level in this country, and we need it. The federal government could have a powerful role to play in advancing that.

Joanne: That's another thing Blackwell points out, that lack of high speed internet impedes people from getting opportunities.

Tracy: Joanne, you're getting at another interesting point from the piece, which was that infrastructure jobs are good jobs. However, I thought she could have taken that even a step further, which is that good infrastructure drives good land use outcomes.

When it comes to things like clean water and high speed internet, it's easy to see how individuals in underserved communities can benefit from increased investment. However, on some level all infrastructure improvements disproportionately benefit the landowning class. So a more progressive infrastructure policy isn't the whole answer to the “equity vs. equality” argument - but those are more silos to break down another day!

Joanne: I agree, this is a huge issue that has a lot of moving pieces and complexities, including racial and economic inequality and discrimination. A progressive policy would have to tackle a whole lot of issues that aren't directly related to infrastructure. There are a lot of things to talk about.

Patrick: Well, I think on some level that makes the argument for tying infrastructure spending to property taxation—which is the domain of local governments. That would certainly serve to make infrastructure spending in a given area responsive to local needs/desires.

Tracy: Patrick, slam dunk. Great point.

Patrick: Unfortunately, as we've seen in recent public polling regarding a dedicated funding source for Metro—the form of taxation that is perhaps the most “progressive” being offered—a tax on land within a quarter of a mile of Metro stations—is also by far the least popular for raising revenue.

Tracy: Way to tie it up!

Jonathan: Well, this went really well. And by that, I mean you had zero need for a moderator.

Patrick: I enjoyed this. Very stimulating, thanks all!

Joanne: Thanks, everyone!