Tag Archives: infrastructure

The Stubborn Middle: Why Progressive Transportation and Urban Policy Will Always be a Local Thing

The branches on either side of my genealogy snake quite a distance before they reach my brothers and me. My mother’s side comes from southern Honshu, diminutive middle-class Japanese folks with a taste for canned sardines and a disdain for low-sodium soy sauce that they’ve passed onto their American cousins. My father’s relatives are half-cowboy and half-redneck, hailing from Wyoming and Colorado with mainly a taste for Coors and two-bit whiskey. They’re hearty, almost universally killed off by old age when liver failure and lung cancer should have cut them down—something about the Rockies and open spaces might prove to be a better panacea than AA and Nicorette. I was visiting my father’s parents in Colorado Springs (COS), a city that their relatives and ancestors put on the map as a city of prospectors and cowboys, in order to talk to my grandfather about his 85 years and hoping to put together a blood history and maybe even get commissioned by the city historical society.

The interviews with my grandfather didn’t take as long as I thought they would. Stories, I’m starting to realize, may take their shape over hours and days but can be relayed in a matter of minutes. It was a depressing personal revelation: sharing our realities with another person tend to disappoint unless you’re blessed with the controlled quicksilver abilities of a natural storyteller. I spent a lot of the time looking around the different parts of COS while my grandparents were shuttling me between nostalgically significant geographies, my grandfather’s motorized picaresque.

As far as small cities go, I’d forgive you if you mistook COS for Des Moines, Iowa or Waco, Texas; it’s memorable for personal reasons and dotted with architectural Americana like the Broadmoor Hotel and the Colorado Mining Exchange. Colorado College flanks either side of Cascade Avenue and looks like most bucolic cloisters of American liberal arts—on an especially sunny spring day in May (coeds drinking Fat Tire on their above-market rate porches) the backdrop made me miss college and lazy afternoons. It’s a city that wouldn’t look odd if it was rendered in grainy black and white.

One other thing about the Springs: almost everyone drives everywhere. While Colorado is still the healthiest state in the nation by both statistical and anecdotal metrics, there is still the feeling that outside of the token bike lanes used mostly by the under-30-and-oft-bearded demographic there is not a desire in much of suburban America for anything outside of the current vernacular of urban planning. Too much traffic? Build more roads. Not enough housing? Build more housing. There isn’t a desire for anything different because necessity hasn’t dictated taking a different look in how things work in places like the Springs. People are generally happy with current planning practices because there aren’t diminishing returns for additive infrastructure—it’s vanilla planning for people who like vanilla.

That isn’t to say that my paternal homeland is somehow backwards or stunted (OK, maybe a little backwards). Necessity has driven places like New York to develop (and keep developing) stringent safety measures for pedestrians and cyclists, or Boston to link its mass transit system in a way that moves as many people as efficiently as possible (still in progress). For the middle country those driving mechanisms haven’t really presented themselves in any intractable way outside of marginally higher gas prices. (Yes, gas prices are at historical highs nominally and effectively but the financial affect on the vast majority of Americans is constantly and grossly overstates and those histrionics are probably the main reason that our interstate infrastructure is in such shoddy condition). Why would they need to change the equation if it’s working just fine for them?

And that’s why transportation changes will always be a local game. Infrastructure development is something that needs to be planned for the long run but is almost always dictated by immediate needs. In a standard small city like Colorado Springs, and indeed most metro-areas that don’t have any geographic bounds, the immediate needs are not going to include progressive infrastructure for another decade at least.  Movements like Complete Streets may have taken off in cities that were already geared towards that sort of politic, but there will be a much tougher contingent to deal with in places like the Springs.

A Word About a National Infrastructure Bank and the Economy

President Obama’s near $500 billion dollar package of tax cuts and stimulus spending is actually facing more muted criticism from his opponents on the right. The reasons why aren’t really important since even tempered obstructionism still has steely resolve when it comes from the likes of Boehner and McConnell. In all likelihood, President Obama won’t be able to get the plan through—but the plan itself is worth a quick going over, especially this part:

Establishing a National Infrastructure Bank:The President is calling for Congress to pass a National Infrastructure Bank capitalized with $10 billion, in order to leverage private and public capital and to invest in a broad range of infrastructure projects of nationaland regional significance, without earmarks or traditional political influence.

The concept isn’t novel, at least not on a state level; State Infrastructure Banks (SIBs) have been helping local governments build transportation facilities for years. Leveraging assets—or as Liz Lemon puts it “turning money into more money“—are how most large scale infrastructure projects get built in this country and by encouraging that practice with a seed from the Federal government would go a long way towards getting projects shovel ready.

345 TheAmericanJobAct A Word About a National Infrastructure Bank and the Economy

Local governments don’t have the sort of cash they used to. They’re collecting lower overall taxes and spending more on entitlement programs then they ever have. Compound that with the reduction in Federal grants and assistance and you can see the credit drought spreading from individuals to local governments—which is a lot more dangerous than it sounds. Credit may have gotten most of America into a personal financial mess but it, with all its faults, runs administrative economics.

The NIB (thank God for good acronyms) would, tired as it may sound, get people back to work on projects that are the specific purview of local governments. Governments would be able to apply for funds like the do with any other innovative financial instrument and the best or most transformative or most necessary would be extended a loan they would pay back with interest. Oddly, though maybe not as odd as on first glance, conservative politicians don’t like the idea of treating local governments like individual people, that is they don’t like the idea of a government applying for a guaranteed loan—for some reason.

aging infrastructure A Word About a National Infrastructure Bank and the Economy

Photo: National Association of Water Companies

Contemporary politics isn’t bound by the rules of logic and that’s getting clearer every televised press conference and canned response. If the political bicamera were more linear, Mr. Obama’s plan would be getting panned more by Democrats for including tax cuts and lauded by conservatives who typically enjoy the metamorphosis of government into everyman. It’s not unclear why many on either side of the spectrum won’t touch the plan one way or the other: the President’s approval ratings make acquiescence toxic while congressional inaction is torpedoing a lot of reelection campaigns for national-stage politicians. Washington is in a dizzy paralysis.

So we may not get a NIB in this form, but the concept isn’t just proven, it’s ubiquitous. Republicans get to turn local government into accountable actors, Democrats get another Federal investment. The relative silence from both parties speaks to the level of hand wringing iside the Beltway, no one knows what to do and what seems safest is staying still, like a surfer forgetting that it’s bears you play dead against, not sharks. Did you hear that? It sounds like some one started playing E-F on a piano…