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April 7, 2021  

Has Infrastructure Become the “Ultimate Partisan Battleground”?

April 7, 2021

In an increasingly divided Washington, D.C., there has been one point on which Republicans and Democrats have been able to agree: that the path to prosperity for America will be paved—literally, paved—by spending trillions of dollars on infrastructure.

This consensus is so unquestioned—and even unquestionable—that we at Strong Towns have said for years that it amounts to a kind of “Infrastructure Cult.” As Chuck Marohn wrote in the Strong Towns book, the “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.”

Late last month, President Joe Biden released his $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Yet instead of Republicans and Democrats coming together to pass infrastructure legislation posthaste, the president’s plan has been controversial. Wait, what happened? Is this the end of the Infrastructure Cult?

Michael Grunwald, writing in Politico, says that infrastructure has become “the ultimate partisan battleground.” The problem, he says, is that “Democrats and Republicans now have very different ideas of what counts as infrastructure...” The traditional infrastructure projects Biden prioritizes take a fix-it-first approach rather than building new highways. There are many billions of dollars in non-traditional infrastructure projects too, including clean energy research, medical research, subsidies for electric vehicles, energy-efficiency upgrades for homes and schools, and more. Critics are also concerned the plan prioritizes cities over rural areas. Grunwald writes:

But in our shirts-and-skins political culture where how you vote has become so intricately connected to where you live, infrastructure has really become a fight over how Americans will live in the future. New highways help connect hollowed-out rural areas to the global economy and encourage migration to Republican exurbs. The Biden plan would make cities more attractive by investing in their competitiveness and connectedness.

In this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and Chuck Marohn, the president of Strong Towns, talk about President Biden’s infrastructure plan and Grunwald’s Politico article in particular. They discuss the traditional and non-traditional interpretations of “infrastructure” in the plan and how it may be perceived differently in rural and suburban and urban areas. They talk about how the plan will be paid for (does it require “magical math”?), why infrastructure should bring a return on investment, and whether Grunwald is right when he claims that vibrant cities “create Democrats.”

Then in the Downzone, Chuck recommends a book he reads every year before Easter. And Abby talks about an animated movie she watched half of with a toddler…and couldn’t wait to finish on her own later.

One final note: Late Night with Strong Towns, our free members-only event, is tomorrow night. If you’re not a member, this would be a great time to become one!

Additional Show Notes: