Top priority. Theoretically.

Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

The Road Not Taken: What If Infrastructure Were Actually Planned?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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If there’s one thing that seemingly every politician can agree on, it’s the awesomeness of infrastructure. But this conversation is often distressingly vague. We do not, after all, build “infrastructure”; we build roads, tunnels, bridges, power plants, water projects, sewers and rail systems. Each of these has individual costs and benefits that have to be weighed against each other; they cannot be approved or disapproved in a giant lump, like motherhood or apple pie.

I find this frustrating because I grew up in a household with an infrastructure maven. My father, Frank McArdle, served as the first commissioner of New York’s Department of Environmental Protection. Then he spent 20 years leading a trade association for the heavy construction industry in New York, which is to say, the people who build all that great infrastructure. In 2007, he was appointed to the Senate's National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, whose final report you can read here

We spent a couple of hours in a Google Hangout talking about infrastructure, and particularly about roads, which are the single biggest line item on our nation’s overdue infrastructure bill.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Megan McArdle: It seems that I can't open a paper without reading that we need to invest more in infrastructure. Hillary Clinton, who appointed you to the Senate commission on transportation finance, wants to spend $250 billion. Donald Trump wants to spend even more. To those of us who maybe spent many happy childhood hours hearing the details of water tunnel construction and subway signal maintenance, infrastructure is always a welcome topic. But the way it's talked about often makes it seem like the ginseng of American politics: it cures whatever problem you have, whether that's low economic growth, a financial crisis, or underemployment among workers without a college degree. Is that fair, or am I being too hard on our "national conversation" about infrastructure?

Frank McArdle: You are very right. Infrastructure zealots talk about spending money on infrastructure the way monetary policy zealots talk about helicopter money. It will cure all ills -- and it will do windows! But that is talk by zealots, not talk by professionals.

We’ve seen in the 2009 stimulus the problems inherent in spending money on infrastructure, particularly through the federal government. The federal government has layers of reviews and approvals that are great employment generators for environmental consultants, but add an average four years to the timeline of a project, all in the project development stage. They waste resources on project review, not on project execution.

Very few people on either the right or the left really understand this. Most on the left think that the work on the infrastructure is done by deserving poor people, more of whom could be employed if only we added money. That is far from the case. Most of the workforce is highly skilled. 

MM: So how do professionals think about infrastructure? One of the things that always gets cited is the American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card. According to them, we seem to be a few short steps from drinking out of mud puddles and transporting our goods by mule train.

FM: The ASCE has a system bias in favor of portraying the United States as having the infrastructure of a Third World nation. They lobby for the civil engineers who would be employed if we really were upgrading our infrastructure.

MM: It’s also not clear to me how many of the people who cite the report card approvingly understand how much of the money would go to highways, which are by far the biggest line item in the report card, not sexy “modern” infrastructure like whiz-bang airports or light rail. (The report's second priority is decidedly unsexy: drinking water systems.) Since roads are such a big portion of what our needs are, let's talk about how we should assess them.

FM: We lack "why are we doing this project" standards, measurable outcomes. We may know and set pavement duration standards, but we lack performance standards that say that travel durations between points should not exceed X at peak morning traffic. We have those measurable performance standards for water supply and waste water. (Flint fell short of these standards.) We don’t for transportation.

Almost every discussion about transportation is about the physical structure of the road, and the opposition to projects. Nothing mandates that localities plan their land use and their transportation together to achieve agreed-upon performance standards that are enforceable in court, as are the water supply and wastewater standards.

The key to achieving clean water in the United States was the mandate that you had to examine and plan your network and system before you could decide what projects contributed the most to achieving the overall end-of-pipe standards.  This forced communities to look both at existing land uses and future proposed land-use choices. None of that has happened on the road side of the business.

There is really very little that limits exurban development other than the willingness of lower-middle-class people to put up with long commutes so their kids can have a backyard experience.

MM: There's obviously an enormous regional component to road planning; Maryland's development decisions drive DC traffic. And yet, there's no coordination, just a freeform jazz odyssey.…

FM: Performance standards that linked road and transportation capacity and land-use decisions would say “there are projects that cannot be done until we have a clear view of where the project will draw its workers and customers, and what we need to do to see that their journey time meets an acceptable standard.” The key in all of this is to get back to the notion of the network and the planning for the network. We were willing to do that with water in 1972, with Richard Nixon in the White House. Can you see any of the candidates today thinking about infrastructure in the same way?

Trump would be a total failure because he does not know how the system works at all. Clinton should know more about the system, but she is captive to those on the left who really believe that any money we spend is going to be useful, and that any unemployed person is a fine candidate for a job on that improvement to the Beltway that we all know is needed, or the next light rail project.

MM: What could Clinton do, aside from performance standards and network-level coordination, if she wants to do a serious infrastructure plan? What kinds of changes are needed to make the process run faster?

FM: There has to be a national discussion on the road performance standards that we want to control land-use decisions. Those standards will then allow us to examine the existing transportation networks, and to identify the projects that will get us to that standard in a fixed time (10 or 20 years).

Then, having adopted a plan and had it tested in court, we can move to execution much more quickly than we can now.

Private developers who confront environmental reviews generally spend time on their first project learning the process and what the regulators want for their kind of project, whether it is wetlands remediation or parking access. Then for the rest of their developer life, they always give the regulator exactly what they want immediately, so there’s little or no time lost in project review.

The difficulty with most transportation projects is that they are viewed as one-offs, which must be reviewed very carefully, generally by people who are focused on the environmental impacts, and not on the value of the transportation improvement. Having performance standards for the system helps establish the value of that improvement. That value to a real community goes a long way toward impacting the hesitancy of the environmental reviewers.

MM: So basically, if we had better standards for transportation projects, we'd not only get better overall performance out of our infrastructure, but we'd be able to build it quicker?

FM: Absolutely. We will have far fewer projects that get hung up in environmental reviews, since the key environmental reviews will occur around the master plan, not the project. The no-growth folks will have had to fight the plan and its conformance to the standards much earlier in the game, and specific project impacts would be much easier to resolve when the value of a project is clear.

MM: Now that seems like something that we should be able to get bipartisan support for.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net