Robert D. Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and a former chairman of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission.
In the past few years, the bitterly polarized “culture wars” have managed to blow apart the traditionally dull and parochial issue of infrastructure policy. As counterintuitive as this reality may be, it explains why Congress cannot agree on how to reauthorize — let alone modernize — federal surface transportation legislation, a.k.a. the highway bill.
How did this happen?
Since the 1990s, there has been a growing political divide between the cultural left and right, with one side favoring monocultural individualism, free markets and devolution to state and local government, and the other favoring multicultural communitarianism, government intervention and a strong federal hand. Issues that are intuitively cultural, such as abortion, guns and immigration, have long been front and center whenever these two worldviews collide. But now, in federal infrastructure policy, we are seeing what happens when self-segregated communities of common interest clash over how to manage our physical spaces.
As recently as the mid-2000s, there was general consensus over infrastructure issues, as reflected in the typically strong bipartisan support for reauthorizations of federal transportation legislation. The big differences were mostly sectional (“donor” and “recipient” states fighting over funding) or interest-based (trucking vs. transit vs. automobiles). But those humdrum days are gone. Longtime infrastructure supporters now find themselves befuddled over how a game of technocratic “inside baseball,” traditionally characterized by bipartisan consensus with a good measure of logrolling and earmarking, got so sidetracked.
The answer is that the partisans have gotten much more ideologically strident, and their differences have become much greater than their areas of agreement.
One side — call it the “congestion caucus” — claims to be infrastructure supporters, but it supports only what it deems the right kinds of infrastructure. Overwhelmingly urban and liberal, this group’s goal is not mobility or even infrastructure. It’s social engineering: getting people out of their soulless single-family suburban homes and into vibrant multiethnic communities; having them ditch their environment-destroying SUVs in favor of sustainable light rail; and supporting the urban disadvantaged instead of a privileged suburban class.
For the congestion caucus, expanding highways to reduce traffic jams is wrong, because it means more single-family homes, more SUVs and more suburbanization. This neatly summarizes why they oppose increased infrastructure funding for road expansion. As one presidential appointee to the Transportation Department told me when I asked why the Obama administration does not support a gas tax increase, too much of the Highway Trust Fund goes to, well, roads.
The other side — call it the “liberty caucus” — also claims to support infrastructure, but only insofar as it’s for roads, and only as long as the federal government’s role shrinks. Generally suburban or rural — and decidedly conservative — this group’s view is that infrastructure spending is politicized and wasteful. And unlike Ronald Reagan, who rightly saw the gas tax as a user fee, those on this side see it as just one more tax, deserving to be cut in the name of damn-it-all small-government purity.
The congestion caucus has been hammering home its message at every turn: Federal support for expanding roads actually makes congestion worse. Nonsensical though this notion is, it is nonetheless now widely believed. To be sure, better urban planning and an increased role for non-auto alternatives will have to be a part of the future transportation landscape. But if this comes at the expense of road expansion, the 85 percent of Americans who commute to work by car, and who waste nearly 7 billion hours yearly stuck in traffic, will suffer.
Meanwhile, from the liberty caucus, we hear the constant refrain that federal infrastructure spending is wasteful. How many more times do we have to hear about former Alaska senator Ted Stevens’s “bridge to nowhere”? Clearly this was an expensive “earmarked” project that defied reasonable cost-benefit calculations. But the liberty caucus fails to mention that, even at their peak, earmarks were a tiny share of transportation funding, and the majority of earmarks were for good projects. That’s because the liberty caucus’s goal is not to better manage federal funding — if it were, it would support proposals such as a national infrastructure bank and increased performance-based accountability for governments receiving federal transportation funding. Instead, its goal is devolving funding to the states — which would, let us be clear, inevitably lead to a significant reduction of overall funding for infrastructure.
So we are stuck. Both sides, each for its own ideological reasons, demonize infrastructure spending.
If we are to have any hope of shifting infrastructure policy away from these culture wars and back toward solution-oriented pragmatism, it is incumbent on true infrastructure supporters to call out both sides’ arguments — the social engineering congestion caucus and the devolutionary liberty caucus — as flawed and damaging to the national interest. And both sides will need to get back to compromising in Congress. For example, lawmakers could increase the gas tax, but use some of the revenue to incentivize tolling; they could appropriate more money for “smart growth” policies, but only if there is results-based accountability. Only then will a greater share of Americans get the mobility we all want and deserve.