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July 15, 2020  

A Better Use of Federal Infrastructure Spending

July 15, 2020

Heading into general election season, Americans are about to be deluged with ads, speeches, debates, articles and commentaries about all the ways in which President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden—the two presumptive major-party nominees—differ on the issues. But there is at least one thing on which the candidates agree: both want to try to jumpstart the economy by spending trillions on infrastructure.

This point of agreement is no surprise to us here at Strong Towns. We even gave it a name: the “Infrastructure Cult.” As Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn wrote in the Strong Towns book, “Our collective belief in the power of infrastructure spending is now so deeply embedded within our society that we struggle to identify it as belief, let alone systematically question it. We take it as truth, unequivocally.”

Still, there are hopeful signs that the devotion to infrastructure spending may be eroding. One of the latest is an opinion piece published last week in the New York Times. Entitled “Stop Building More Roads,” the authors—two engineering professors, one at the University of Toronto, and the other at Cambridge—write that “the economic benefits of expansion are marginal and the downsides significant.” The first step to recovery, they say, should be focused on job creation, “but without saddling it to shortsighted, status quo projects we will later regret—highways, for example.”

The same goes for projects that emphasize technological  infrastructure, which risks becoming rapidly obsolete. Such projects should be “shovel ready” and “shovel worthy,” and sufficiently funded so that they don’t linger in aspirational planning documents. In the immediate term, this means emphasizing lots of small projects. They can quickly be planned, discussed and constructed once virus spread conditions allow. This will look different than 1930s New Deal images of heavy construction everywhere.

That article, “Stop Building More Roads,” is the subject of this week’s episode of Upzoned. Host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, is joined by Strong Towns Program Director Rachel Quednau. They discuss where Dr. Shoshanna Saxe and Dr. Kristen MacAskill’s alternatives for federal stimulus spending dovetails with a Strong Towns approach. They also talk about why the Infrastructure Cult has been economically (and socially) ruinous, why it’s time to reimagine what “progress” looks like, and what a much better use would be for all that stimulus money.

Then in the Downzone, Rachel recommends an excellent novel about Nigerian immigrants in the US and UK, as well as a TV show about the personal computing revolution. And Abby describes making the most of her opportunities to be outside before we’re all forced back inside by cold weather and COVID-19.

Additional Show Notes: