American infrastructure is in poor shape. Roads and bridges are routinely falling apart, and many government agencies are far behind on their upkeep — the National Park Service alone estimates it has a maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion.
This no doubt motivates Democratic presidential candidate and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar's new proposal for a $1 trillion infrastructure package. There's much to like about it, particularly the scale. But it also reveals a warped set of priorities and a lack of understanding about the biggest problem with American infrastructure — namely, cost.
First, the good. A trillion bucks is a good starting point. American infrastructure both needs a lot of repairs and a major expansion — particularly for rail and public transit. It's good to see her endorse plans to "[reduce] our energy consumption overhaul our rail infrastructure when it comes to freight and passenger rail, and bring high-speed rail to more communities." The mention of freight is a bit odd, given that America's freight rail system is actually quite good, but it probably needs work too.
She also proposes investments in rural internet access, climate-friendly investments, and flood protection, which are all good ideas.
As an aside, it is amusing to see Klobuchar casually propose $650 billion in direct federal infrastructure spending (the rest is supposed to come from private sources and bond sales) when she dismissed free four-year college — which would cost only about $70 billion per year — as too expensive. Centrists often hide their ideological priorities behind "we can't afford it" rhetoric.
But this brings me to the first problem: priorities. Public transit gets third billing, while the top slot goes (as usual) to cars — spending to "Repair and replace our roads, highways, and bridges." At a minimum, this is backwards. The mid-20th century movement to orient the entire American built environment around automobiles was a catastrophe for functional urbanism and public health. Driving kills tens of thousands a year through accidents, tens of thousands more through air pollution, and tens of thousands more by encouraging an unhealthy lifestyle. Moreover, cars are a fundamentally stupid and inefficient way to move people around in a confined space — creating both epic traffic congestion in cities and sprawl that increases carbon pollution and loneliness.
Now, we can't just re-engineer American cities to become like Paris or London overnight, so no doubt we will have to spend something on road upkeep. But a big infrastructure package should certainly lean against highways and sprawl, and towards density. In particular, cities should seriously consider tearing out arterial freeways in their urban cores, which destroyed huge dense neighborhoods that badly need to be rebuilt — and putting the saved maintenance dollars (plus additional tax revenue) towards transit.
The second problem is even more important: cost. Klobuchar says nothing about the stupendous cost bloat in American construction, which would strangle any of the projects worth doing she proposes. For instance, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) recently canceled the high-speed rail project to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, mainly due to poor planning and 10 years of spiraling budget overruns. Elsewhere, New York just took 10 years to build a measly three subway stops at a cost of $4.5 billion — about equal to the price of Grand Coulee Dam (volume: nearly four times that of the Great Pyramid at Giza) in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Just what the problem here is hard to figure out. As Alon Levy argues, it appears American government at all levels is doing basically everything wrong — the procurement is bad, the engineering is bad, the choice of construction techniques is bad, the management is bad, and projects are continually larded up with expensive political goodies. Essentially no one with power is even trying to do things efficiently or cheaply, probably because they don't know how or care to know. The California high-speed rail project, for instance, featured a ludicrous detour to Palmdale that cost $5 billion and increased trip time by 12 minutes.
At a minimum, I would suggest some kind of commission to study the cost disaster in depth, which would give infrastructure advocates a set of best practices and talking points to rally around. But if America wants to finally bring its infrastructure up to the level of Japan in the 1950s (let alone the 21st century), political leaders are going to have to do something. Otherwise we could easily waste the whole trillion bucks on a handful of freeway overpasses and boondoggles.