Will We Have an Infrastructure Bill? Who Cares?

April 2021 Cannon Renewal Project %2851187983801%29

After a long break, and with the publishing last month of Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, I’m back out on the road sharing thoughts and getting feedback from Strong Towns members and others all over the country.

I find I’m getting variations on the same two questions over and over, the first about the lawsuit and the second regarding the status of the federal infrastructure bill. I’m obviously up to speed on the first—short update: we are waiting for judges to rule on process matters—and I get why people would ask about it. It’s a distraction to what we’re trying to do, but the underlying issues are important.

The inspiration for the second question, however, is less clear to me. I’ll spend an hour talking with a group about how we’ve overbuilt our infrastructure systems, what this approach is robbing from our local capacity and prosperity, how we need to get more out of what we’ve already built, and how we go about doing that in our cities from the bottom up. …Then someone asks me whether or not there will be a federal infrastructure bill.

A lot of people want me to care, but I don’t. I’ve written a lot this year about the federal bill but never to urge or oppose its adoption. I’m not even trying to shape the debate in Washington, DC. My only goals have been to explain what’s in it and then convince people that, no matter its magnitude, it will not change the list of things we need to do at the local level. 

The president’s original proposal was a huge number, but while it identified 173,000 miles of highways that are currently in poor condition, it proposed to fund (over the course of a decade) the modernization of only 20,000 miles. Same with bridges: 45,000 bridges in poor condition and the president’s plan addressed 10,000 of them.

This is more of an observation than a criticism. The president’s plan, called the American Jobs Plan, was unprecedented in its size and scope. In fact, it proposed more spending than even some members of the president’s own party would support. It has since been negotiated down, made significantly smaller, yet even the massive initial proposal only funded a small fraction of our maintenance backlog. 

If the biggest the federal government can go is only funding (over the course of a decade) 12% of our highway maintenance backlog and 22% of our bridge maintenance backlog—rates of repair that will be dwarfed by the rate that more infrastructure falls apart and is added to the backlog—what do you think is going to happen to all that stuff in your community that you have no money to maintain?

Absent any serious conversation about substantive reform (and there is ZERO serious discussion among policymakers for reforming these legacy programs) does it really matter if the legislation funds repair of 12% of highway miles or only manages to fund 8%? Does it matter if we fix 22% of bridges or only 17%? It doesn’t matter to me; they are all nonsensical proposals given the size of the problem they are pretending to address.

This week I was exposed to Noah Smith, a member of the Infrastructure Cult who, after calling out Strong Towns for being against all federal spending on infrastructure (we’re not), blocked me and a bunch of others on Twitter for disagreeing. His writing and tweeting on the subject fall in line with the standard Infrastructure Cult approach, including his latest piece on Substack titled “Pass the damn infrastructure bill, dammit.” This is the kind of beltway posturing that gets clicks and Twitter feuds, but accomplishes little else.

Twitter, cable news, and to a slightly lesser extent the Sunday morning news shows, are to the political class what World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is to the working class. It’s good entertainment. There is a lot of posturing and preening and that’s all part of the show. And while the people who watch it at some level acknowledge that it is mostly fake, there is enough of a veneer of reality—along with a strong desire to believe—to give the experience the necessary verisimilitude for it to endure. And for the money to flow.

It’s comically sad to watch someone with the megaphone Smith has merely listing the billions being spent on different infrastructure programs as de-facto proof of the legislation’s progressive nature, as if “spending = progressive” is a simple and obvious equation. And then there was this from Smith, written in response to the typical insider posturing for political leverage:

“If you think that killing both road funding and transit funding will somehow shift America toward a more transit-centric urban development model, you’re out of your mind.”

While not arguing for killing both, it’s also not crazy to suggest that a reduced federal role in transportation funding would result in a more localized approach, one with greater fiscal restraint and feedback. Such an approach would, out of urgent fiscal necessity, not to mention popular demand, shift America to a more transit-centric urban development model. That the Infrastructure Cult finds this so preposterous shows the self-imposed (and generally self-serving) limits of their thinking.

I’ll keep answering the question about a federal infrastructure bill, but please understand that it matters far less to your future than what you and your neighbors choose to do in your own community. A nation of Strong Towns—one where the energy of Americans is not dissipated by the inconsequential horse race of political DC, but instead put to work making their own places great—is not something we have to wait for permission to build.

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