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Infrastructure Spending, Reconsidered

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Infrastructure Spending, Reconsidered

10 Blocks podcast October 16, 2019
Infrastructure and energy

Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, joins City Journal contributing editor Nicole Gelinas to discuss the state of U.S. infrastructure and how federal spending could be used more effectively to improve safety and reduce fiscal waste.

The federal government spends between $40 billion and $60 billion on transportation infrastructure annually. In recent years, congressional leaders and the White House have pushed a $2 trillion plan to upgrade roads, bridges, and more. But such proposals, Osborne argues, “would throw more money into the same flawed system.”

Audio Transcript

Nicole Gelinas: Hello. Welcome to the City Journal 10 Blocks podcast. I am Nicole Gelinas, a contributing editor at City Journal, sitting in for Brian Anderson today. We have with us Beth Osborne, the Director of Transportation for America. Beth was previously at the US Department of Transportation, where she was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy under former President Obama. Beth has a long history of transportation expertise going back to her days as a congressional staffer. Welcome Beth, and thanks for coming on the podcast.

Beth Osborne: Thanks for having me.

Nicole Gelinas: So, Beth, before we get into how transportation for America has put out a manifesto of sorts this week, and in refocusing your mission, why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about Transformation for America and Smart Growth. How did your organization come about and what are your goals?

Beth Osborne: Sure. Well, Transportation for America was created in 2008 as an organization that would push for a more multimodal, more outcomes based transportation system. It was originally an independent non-profit. Over the last 11 years, we have changed. We now have membership, and we are now a part of a umbrella organization called Smart Growth America, because one of the things that we have realized in transportation is the way that our communities are laid out has a big impact on whether or not the transportation system can work efficiently. If you're in a community where the destinations you need to reach, like the grocery store, are close by, walkability becomes a lot easier than if it is it 10 miles away to the grocery store, for example. So the land use mission of Smart Growth America, which is to create a community where the things you need are close by to you and your communities are walkable, match what we're trying to do very well. And now we describe our mission as is creating a transportation system that connects people to jobs and services by multiple modes of transportation, no matter what the household income or your ability is. And we do that through advocacy, through research and analysis of the current program, and through thought leadership.

Nicole Gelinas: Okay. And you say that people and groups can become members. What does your membership look like? Where do your members come from?

Beth Osborne: They are local governments, metropolitan planning organizations, chambers of commerce, and other non-profits. So they're institutions that are committed to our mission, and are generally those who are trying to implement that vision on the ground.

Nicole Gelinas: Okay, sounds good. You put up a three point plan earlier this week, and you start out by saying we're spending nearly $40 billion in federal tax dollars every year, which fails to bring us equivalent returns. The more we spend, the more that congestion, emissions, and pedestrian fatalities seem to rise, which is certainly true and alarming. Tell our listeners a little bit about what you've changed in terms of your outlook, and why did you decide that you needed to go through this rethink?

Beth Osborne: Well, throughout my experience in transportation, and I first moved to Washington DC to work in public policy in the mid-90s, throughout that time period, my experience has been that everyone has believed that we have to put more money into the program in order to justify moving funding around or changing the program in any way. Because the idea was the pie would have to get bigger so that there's no losers when you move funding around. In spite of that, and in spite of multiple reauthorizations that have gotten additional funding, there has not ever been an appetite for making the program more accountable, or to commit the program to what we claim our objectives are. There's a lot of lip service given every time we reauthorize the program to addressing safety concerns, to fixing our crumbling roads and bridges. How many times have you heard that phrase? That we need to fix our crumbling roads and bridges. But the program does not direct the money towards that. It is an allowable expense, but it is not a required focus. There is no commitment to getting through the backlog or setting goals in those areas. And so after watching this process, frankly for decades, produce no discernible goals, we frankly got tired of it. And so our position, we have altered our position, and said it makes no sense to put more money into a program that is rudderless, that is not committed to what we claim our national goals are. It's just a pass through of funding to state to do with as they please. Some of them are doing really good things and some of them aren't. If we're going to ask the federal taxpayer to put more money into this program, we should... And even if we don't, frankly, we should be able to tell them what they're going to get for their funding, and then organize the program to guarantee that outcome. It just seems like a lot of our policy makers are afraid to make those commitments, and all they'll really commit to is that a certain amount of money will be spent in your state. That's what everybody's press release looks like. X million dollars will be spent in our state over the coming years. If that's not being spent to make our roads safer or more efficient or bring them to a state of repair, then I don't know why we should spend any money on them.

Nicole Gelinas: Before we get into your specific three goals here, has anyone gotten mad at you? Or is anyone in DC transportation advocacy land saying you're betraying us, we need to focus on a bigger bill? Or has feedback been more positive?

Beth Osborne: I have to say overwhelmingly, both on and off the Hill, it has been quite positive. Even where people haven't necessarily declared publicly that they like the message, I've gotten a lot of phone calls and emails with people, frankly, sighing a sigh of relief to say, "Thank God someone's finally talking about what we need to accomplish." The only real pushback I've seen is from the US Chamber of Commerce, that seems to think that money is the point. And some of their followers on Twitter have agreed that the top priority needs to be to dump more money into this hole.

Nicole Gelinas: Tell us what your three points are.

Beth Osborne: Sure. Well, we start out with the maintenance goal, because frankly, there's nothing I fear more, both this time and in past reauthorizations, from those who are arguing that we need to pass a bill, then we need to address our crumbling infrastructure. But like I said, the program doesn't require that money is spent on maintenance first, doesn't make anyone really commit to a particular outcome. And so we're saying this time they should. That the program should be organized, that money, particularly formula dollars, are for maintenance first, and that the goal should be in the next six years to cut the maintenance backlog in half. Now, that is a very ambitious goal, in six years to cut it in half. But if that goal is wrong, I would be thrilled for congressional leaders to come back and say, "Well, half's a little much, but we'll get to 40% or a third." At least we'd be having a conversation about what we, as a tax payer, should expect for all the spending. We think half is possible, though ambitious. So that's first. If we really want to bring our system to a state of repair, then let's show us a program that will actually deliver on that claim. We know that funding is not the issue, because even with the Recovery Act, which doubled our money for transportation, and quite unexpectedly, we still saw our roads deteriorate over the following 10 or so years. So extra money didn't do it. Now we need to talk about what will. So that's one. Let's truly address our crumbling roads and bridges. Two is safety. Now, there are a ton of parts of the safety issue. What we're really focusing on is roadway design. This is an interesting area for a lot of our safety issues like wearing helmets or wearing seatbelts or drunk driving or distracted driving. There's a lot of criticism that we're not doing enough to encourage safe behavior. When it comes to our roadway design, the feds and state DOTs actually require designs that are actively unsafe, that are focused on speed of auto movement over safety, and that's even while the number of people dying on our roadways is increasing every year. While people will often hear the number of deaths on the roadways, which is now at about 40,000 a year, and it's been going up over the last several years, we don't talk about injuries as much, and that's in the millions every single year. Some of those injuries are quite severe and will impact people for the rest of their lives. And so I don't think we should just think about them as bumps and bruises. We are permanently changing people's lives for the worst while we prioritize speed that might save the driver seconds on their trip over the quality of life and the actual life of people who might be in their way. We don't think that's acceptable. So we want to see safety prioritized over speed.

Nicole Gelinas: Before we get to your third important point, what does a safe road look like? Are we talking bike lanes, bus lanes on every major road? Are we talking more cross walks, more traffic lights? I think of road design a lot in thinking about autonomous vehicles. Like the woman who was killed by the autonomous vehicle almost two years ago, walking alongside a arterial road in Arizona. Of course, Uber bears a lot of the responsibility there, but it also just goes back to the design of the road. The road was designed for fast moving cars and SUVs. Not a lot of places for pedestrians to cross. People aren't really walking around unless they're poor. Everyone from working class on up has multiple cars. So what would you do to address these designs?

Beth Osborne: So the good news is there isn't a one size fits all, in spite of the fact that much of our transportation program imposes a one size fits all approach to transportation. One that seeks to move the vehicles as quickly as possible. There are two really diverging approaches to making a safe roadway. If you want a very high speed roadway, you can find a safe way to move people at high speeds, it just looks like a limited access divided highway. So our interstates allow very high speed. What they don't allow is any development along the side of them. They don't allow a lot of access points and they don't allow bicyclists or pedestrians, and that's how you make speed safe. Once you get into a highly developed area and you have arterial roadways flanked by tons of development, the only way you make that safe is by slowing down the traffic, and by accommodating all the users in a safe way. Now, does it mean that every single roadway in the country needs to have a separated bike lane? No. Especially if the roadway is marked 20 miles per hour and designed 20 miles per hour, you can share that roadway. But what we find is as you make things faster, the driver just doesn't have the capacity to take in as much information. They don't have the capacity to avoid problems as easily. If there's a mistake or someone else makes a mistake, you can't avoid a crash as easily. And also, when a crash does occur, particularly with a bicyclist or pedestrian, it is more likely to be fatal the higher you go over 20 miles per hour.

Nicole Gelinas: And what about the size of vehicles? Is there anything that, short of regulating and charging for size, is there any way to design roadways to make these tall, bulky vehicles less deadly?

Beth Osborne: You know, that's a really good question, and I will not pretend that our organization is expert in auto design. That's why we are very much focused on the roadway itself, that fits much more into our expertise. But we have noticed, like everyone else, that the large vehicles are more likely to hit pedestrians at a higher level. Therefore, they're more likely to be thrown under the vehicle and be put in a much more dangerous situation. We definitely need to have a conversation about how to make them safer. I think the other thing we need to consider is we have designed our communities so that when people leave the house, they have to take a good portion of their house with them, because every place they're going to have to go that day is going to be in a car. They're going to have to traipse long distances to get simple things done. The bank's not close, the dry cleaner's not close, the school's not close, the grocery's not close. All of these things result in people having to fill up a big vehicle to get things done in a day, which pushes them to have a bigger car. If they live in a neighborhood like mine, I can go to the grocery multiple times a week with a cart, or just with bags, because it's just a couple blocks away from me. The bank is a couple blocks away from me. The dry cleaner is a half a block away from me. I don't need to carry my whole household with me to get my daily routine done, because my community's laid out for me as a human, not requiring me to bring an armored vehicle around the town with me.

Nicole Gelinas: I think that brings you to your third point. So why don't you tell us what your third point is, and then we can talk about some of these land use issues and some of the challenges that they raise.

Beth Osborne: Sure. The third one is to design the program around the concept of providing people access to jobs and services. Now, this sounds kind of obvious and it sounds like something we probably are already doing, but we're not. And that is for several reasons. One is up until recently, it was really hard to know where people might be traveling to without doing very expensive surveying. So people looked for proxies, and one of the proxies was the speed of your trip. If your car is going faster, you must be getting your to your destination faster, right? Well, as it turns out, no. Because the things we do to make the roadway faster cuts off shorter trips. We limit the access to the road and we make it impossible for people to get over the road, so people get trapped on one side of the road in spite of what they need is right across it. They might have to go way out of their way to come back. And as that happens, a lot of the development gets spread out so that they have to go further, making it impossible to make trips on foot, on bike, making transit much harder by spreading all the development out. So a lot of what we've done in focusing on speed doesn't actually keep the things you need close to you. The other thing is focusing on speed might mean that you're going at a high speed, but you might have to... Well, we don't actually measure whether or not you arrive at your destination. That seems to be incidental. As long as you went at a high speed, it's an A+ roadway. So people going in circles forever at speed at or over the speed limit is an A+ roadway, and we actually rate it with an A. We grade it A through F. But people who take a very short trip and get where they're going in five minutes, but had to do it in stop and go traffic, that is an F. That is an utter failure. What we want to do is actually see that people are getting where they need to go within a reasonable period of time. And like I said, technologically, that was a hard thing to do until recently. But we've worked with states who are now using this to select projects, like the state of Virginia and Hawaii and Massachusetts, and then they're looking into using it in Utah and Washington as well. That uses GIS, which tells us where the houses are, and we know where the important destinations are. Where we have the congestion data, so we know how long a car trip between those points will be. And we have the GPFS feeds, so we know how long it would take to get to that destination by transit. We brought in some proxies to figure out how bikable or walkable they are. So we can find out, by all modes of travel, how many jobs are available to a census track, like I said, by all modes. And we can tell what services, from the grocery to the bank to school to daycare to medical, are accessible from that census track as well. And then we can look at changes in the transportation system or land use that will improve that accessibility. So it puts transportation and land use on the same plane, and you can compare the changes off of each other to see which is more cost effective.

Nicole Gelinas: You brought up land use a couple of times, and I think this is where it starts to get politically dicey for members of Congress. That this is often framed as telling people how to live. There's a lot of pressure on places like New York and San Francisco, which are already very, very dense, to get even more denser, even to the point of losing their local democratic right to determine their own density. But yet, we've built out Nashville, we've built out Charlotte, we've built out Orlando, we built out Phoenix, with essentially no density. Houston, of course, Houston is just ring road after ring road, where everybody gets a third of an acre and a house on top of it and you have to drive everywhere. There's no real jobs hub, there's one jobs hub here and one here. And so everyone is driving in all different directions, and it's just an 18 hour traffic jam. Should we be using the transportation bill, whether through carrots or sticks, to, I'll use the word force, because that's kind of what we're talking about, to force places to become denser? Or is there any validity to the idea that, I want to live in a house and I want to have a yard and the government shouldn't be telling me what to do?

Beth Osborne: So the government is telling us what to do right now. Through land use, it's illegal to put the things you need close to you. And it's often illegal to make your roadways safe. Sidewalks aren't required, sometimes they're not even allowed. So the notion that the government has been telling me what to do is a little frightening to me, that people don't realize how prescriptive land use codes are right now, and how illegal a traditional neighborhood is in most parts of America. So let's not pretend that we're already not telling people what to do. And what's fascinating is, walkable transit served areas have the highest property value and they're the hardest things to build. So basically, what we've done is we have treated land use like the diamond industry. We have something that could be plentiful that we know people want and we have restricted their access to it, and then we shrugged our shoulders and said, "Well, how did it get expensive?" Anybody that's taken economics in college, 101, knows when you restrict the supply of something that's in demand, you raise its price. And that is what government has done. They said, "I know what you want, I won't give it to you, and then we'll see what happens." That is truly unfortunate, and that is the case across the nation. I don't think we need to fix the entire nation's land use problem on just the island of Manhattan and in San Francisco. If we were to use access to jobs and services, we would see that those two cities are amongst the most accessible in the country. We would probably then see how most of the country is completely inaccessible, especially to lower income people and people of color. And they would have to grapple with that. Now, they could look at that and say there's a lot they could do on the transportation front to improve that accessibility. They might also find that if they would make some tweaks to their land use codes that stopped prohibiting multifamily housing, that stopped prohibiting mixed use development, that they could do it for free by letting the development community increase their accessibility for them. Or if they say I don't want to do it for free, I want to do it for tens of millions of dollars, they could do it that way too. That's up to them. One of the things I find fascinating about this is congress does get very squeamish when we talk about land use, but the Euclidean zoning that we have deployed across the country came from the federal government. It was the Department of Commerce under Herbert Hoover in the mid-20s that put that out as guidance to localities, and they all adopted it. So the notion that the feds didn't cause the problem is silly. And since they did cause the problem, they probably should be some part of the solution, now that we know what a mistake it was.

Nicole Gelinas: And just returning to more rational land use, does this require more mass transit? Whether it's buses, light rail, even expansion of underground rail in places that never built an underground rail system. Can you have a critical mass of multifamily housing but still have people getting around by car?

Beth Osborne: Well, you can certainly improve accessibility by car. In some places we we have barriers. Maybe it's a rail bed or something, and some additional crossings of the rail bed or some kind of obstruction like that could help improve car accessibility. Unfortunately, with the current density and spread out land use patterns, we are requiring everybody over 16 to drive themselves alone, and you just have a geometry problem. There's no way to fit everybody over 16 driving themselves absolutely every place they need to go, especially when every single place they need to go is out of their way and not connected by a really linked roadway network. I've seen maps of communities where houses are 70 yards apart, and the only way to drive between them is seven miles. That can't be fixed. If you don't build a roadway network that is connected, if you don't put destinations close to each other, you force everybody to drive, and they're all going to spend all their time in congestion, and nothing's going to be very accessible. Certainly transit is part of the solution, but that also requires some level of mixed use development so that you can go to a stop and conduct a lot of business right at that stop. It also makes things easier for the driver, because they can go to a center and park their car and do a whole bunch of things in one area, rather than have to drive 10 to 20 minutes between every single place that they have to go. So a lot of the stuff that we can do on the land use side makes driving better and easier, makes sharing trips better and easier, makes transit more cost effective and easier for people to use as well. It also makes those areas more walkable and more bikable. So it kind of solves everything. I will say that there are plenty of communities in the country that may not need transit so much as just pure walkability. When I was a kid, I lived in a little town called Ravenswood, West Virginia, and even at 10 years old, I could walk the whole town by myself. The downtown still had the basic necessities you needed, and they were really only just a few blocks away from my house. At its apex, it was 5,000 people, I believe. Now it's more like 1,500 people, because the main plant in the area closed down. But what's happened in a lot of those rural small towns is all of the downtown facilities shuttered, and all the things people need are now outside of town by 10 to 20 minutes. So maybe bringing that development back to their downtown, everyone in town could walk there. But if you're going to insist on having an empty downtown, a hollowed out downtown, and all the things people need 10 to 20 minutes outside of town, well, yeah, they're going to have to drive absolutely everywhere. It's not great for the economy. It requires us to invest more in roads at a time where the area is hit hard economically and doesn't have the capacity to put more money into roads. So there's definitely a lot of different ways you can handle it based on the type of community you have and the size of community you have. But they all do involve thinking about where those destinations are. And I would also like to say in many cases, we are giving tax credits to this development. If we would think about accessibility, maybe we give tax credits to the development that will move to areas that improves accessibility and not to areas that will decrease accessibility.

Nicole Gelinas: And for all people's worry about letting their 10 year old kid walk around, the most dangerous thing parents do is let their kids start driving when they're 16, 17, and that's a function of land use and transportation, as you noted.

Well, Beth, thank you very much again for coming on. You've given us a a lot to think about and a lot of thought provoking ideas here. Tell us what your website is for people who want to go and learn even more about this.

Beth Osborne: Absolutely. It is that T, the number four, America, T4America.org. And if you go to the slash about page, all of our new agenda and principles are up there. There's a lot of information about what can be done in the federal program to support these goals as well.

Nicole Gelinas: Terrific. Again, we've been talking with Beth Osborne, the Director of Transportation for America. Thank you, Beth, for coming on.

Beth Osborne: Thank you for having me on.

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