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Infrastructure Spending and the Psychology of Previous Investment

My state’s infrastructure is appalling.

It is outdated. It is poorly maintained. Some of it is downright dangerous.

I have heard it said that we are teaching our kids to learn in schools constructed by Roosevelt and we drive them there on roads built by Eisenhower. Of the state’s 120,000 road miles less than 20% are in good condition. There are 1,300 structurally deficient bridges.

MITA-Dead-Embarrassed-Billboard

Not a rhetorical question

It is easy to blame the problem on the current crop of state legislators who, to date, seem unable (or unwilling) to address the challenges of road funding, public transportation and water infrastructure, to name a only few areas of obvious neglect. For their actions, they deserve the criticism.

A continued belief that it is possible to build a resilient, healthy economy absent sustained investments in the things that make economic activity possible would be laughable if it weren’t held by so many as fact.

It’s not JUST a question of how much

Finding public funds for infrastructure is a key hurdle to improving the current system, but so is adopting a coordinated strategy on how to spend the money. The results of decades of unchecked and ill conceived development has left Michigan with an untenable (and outdated) mess of roads, bridges, and public structures.

Do we need 120,000 miles of roads? We know that people are driving less and demanding multi-modal transportation options. Shouldn’t we heed their calls and distribute the resources to mirror them? (In Michigan we spend less than 10% of transportation funding on transit)

Flint Water

Yummy

Getting decision makers to engage in a critical analysis of the system that results in major changes is hard. There are bureaucracies in place to support the status quo, political pressures that stifle inventive thought and minds to change that have no intention of doing so. All this leads to a form of paralysis that urban provocatuer Jim Kunstler calls the “Psychology of Previous Investment.” The mindset stems from an inability to abandon prior investments- roads, bridges, water systems, etc.- that aren’t viable, sustainable or of value. Jim points to the low density, greenfield building that was the norm throughout the U.S. in the last half of the 20th and early 21st centuries as an untenable network and advocates the need to divide resources to places with more traditional community design.

As someone who advocates for these principles at every level of government I can tell you that the mindset of decision makers to double down on what is already in place, despite the obvious shortcomings, is real. The fact that people and businesses are choosing to locate in dense, connected neighborhoods at increasing rates ought to provide a recipe for distributing resources to match the demand, but for the psychological clutch that people have on prior investments. This has to change.

Soooooo…. Is the answer to our infrastructure problem more money? Yes. (Sorry, but we need it) But the amount of funding is only the beginning. We must also spend better by adhering to fiscal realities, public desires and economic trends, all of which are currently in our favor. Now we need the minds at the table to match the facts on the ground. Only then will we have a system that improves quality of life and economic opportunity for everyone.

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