Infrastructure! We’ve really got your attention now, right? Here’s the thing, though: It’s what makes modern life possible. Showers, cellphones, pizza delivery, toilets — all those fail without infrastructure. Much of what we’ve got now is old, dangerous, and needs replacement, and voters of both political parties agree on the need to do something about it. (That last statement in itself should be shocking enough to keep you reading.)
So President Trump, seeking an issue slightly less divisive that yanking health care away from millions of people, has promised to present a $1 trillion spending proposal to Congress sometime in the next three weeks, claiming it will “completely fix America’s infrastructure.” Never mind that the American Society of Civil Engineers has said we need to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 — they’ve obviously never seen Trump make deals.
The question is, where to start? While Republicans and Democrats are united on the need to fix the nation’s roads, bridges, airports, and sewer drains, they largely disagree on how to spend the money — a split that’s largely rural-urban in nature, with Rs preferring highways and Ds preferring public transit, for starters.
As with his border wall, Trump has suggested he’ll get someone else to pay for the rebuilding effort — the builders themselves, who would be compensated in the form of tax write-offs and user fees. We talked to a lot of experts over the past few weeks, from both ends of the political spectrum, about where the money for infrastructure should go and how to pay for it. Just about all of them panned Trump’s ideas.
“When we look at our infrastructure investments, for the most part, they all lose money,” says Chuck Marohn, founder of the nonprofit Strong Towns. “So I’m deeply skeptical that, without financial shenanigans, there are any good investments out there for a business.”
What would get built under Trump’s let-it-pay-for-itself plan? A bunch of toll plazas, basically, Marohn says. So, instead of asking what will happen under Trump’s infrastructure proposal (sigh), we asked the wide range of experts we talked to what should happen. What would they do with $1 trillion to spend on the country’s corroded pipes, crumbling bridges, and iffy transit systems? Here are their wishlists, as told to Grist.
Let people out of their cars
Lynn Richards, president and CEO, Congress for New Urbanism
When you look at infrastructure needs in the United States, we’re trillions and trillions behind where we need to be. We can’t afford to spend our money on infrastructure that just meets one objective.
So my budget focuses on projects that fulfill multiple needs. Expanding biking infrastructure, green streets, and parks gives you a good return on investment and improves mobility and public health.
Let’s start with the smallest part of the budget: biking infrastructure. I bike from Georgetown to our office in DuPont Circle and often take up a whole car lane going 20 miles an hour max. Give bikers like me a protected lane, and you will not only make it easier for people to bike, but ease congestion.
People want mobility in the most efficient manner possible. But we make it so difficult to take transit, bike, and walk that of course people drive. It becomes the easiest way.
So many cities need more transit but aren’t ready for light rail. Let’s meet communities where they are. For some the answer is BRT, bus rapid transit. It looks and operates just like a rail system, but it’s cheaper and more flexible. Hartford, Connecticut, has been putting in miles and miles of BRT lines.
High-speed rail is an investment for the future even though we need it right now. It’s a seven-hour drive from Washington, D.C., to Boston and an eight-to-10-hour train ride. That should be a trip you can make on high-speed rail. Let’s link other major metropolitan areas, like New Orleans to Houston. We need to give people a wide range of transportation options.
There are freeways around the country that split neighborhoods and separate cities from the water, like the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, or I-81 in Syracuse. Many of these are nearing the end of their life. So instead of paying to repair them, take them down and create boulevards. The Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco came down, and look at the boulevard now.
Let’s build parks in economically disadvantaged communities. We know from research that parks have a great economic impact, leaving aside the public health benefits. Infrastructure is more than just sewer and roads. It’s about the very foundation of our communities.
No more ribbon cuttings
Aaron Renn, senior fellow, Manhattan Institute
The most important principle of a federal infrastructure bill should be a maniacal focus on maintenance. Politicians always prefer cutting ribbons on new things to maintaining something that already exists. We put a large percentage into new roads and new transit systems when our old ones are falling apart. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.
I don’t favor building more highways. That’s not a national economic driver the way the original interstate highways system was back in the ’50s. A lot of people think…