Infrastructure in Real Life: Transportation

 
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By Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers and Pantsuit Politics. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.
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Our Infrastructure In Real Life series continues down the road with its third installment today. We're talking transportation! ⁠

Even though America is a very car-centric country, we're not limiting our conversation to transportation with wheels. Plus, we talk about why infrastructure projects are just so dang expensive and what that means for the innovating in this space.⁠

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Guests

  • Joseph Kane, Senior Research Associate and Associate Fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program

  • Adie Tomer, Fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program

  • Sabrina Drago, Executive Director of the Sacramento Transportation Authority

Resources

Transcript

Misc. Voices: [00:00:00] Experts say behind the scenes, key parts of the nation's infrastructure system are at a breaking point.

Bridge was declared functionally obsolete 23 years ago in 1998.

The cost of years of neglect.

According to the federal plan, Georgia state Capitol is now embarking on a multi-billion dollar push to fix its challenges

Misc. Voices: [00:00:21] Who is responsible for the Eatonville dam failure?

Now is the time and I believe we have a real chance to deliver for the American people. We need to build our economy back better by creating millions of good paying jobs, revitalizing communities that have been left behind and tackling the climate crisis.

Sarah: [00:00:55] From today's bill to tomorrow's jobs.

Beth: [00:00:56] We're looking for the government at work, in our tap water, light [00:01:00] switches and bridges and broadband.

Sarah: [00:01:01]You're listening to Pantsuit Politics’ summer series:

Beth: [00:01:04] Infrastructure in Real Life.

Sarah: [00:01:29] Hello, and welcome back to infrastructure in real life. We are moving on today to transportation, so we've covered one.

Moving on.

Beth: [00:01:37] Yes. Do you like that? It's going to happen a few times. So we've done water, we've done energy and now we're talking about how human beings make our way around the country. We asked our listeners for some information on their commutes and learned, as we expected, there is a wide range of transportation happening daily and a commute doesn't even take into account all the places [00:02:00] that we need to be in our lives and I think when you sit down and really take a minute to consider all the places we need to be in our lives, the challenge of meeting those needs across this big diverse country start to become evident and we'll see that as we go through a little bit of history on transportation and then think about where we are and where we need to go.

Sarah: [00:02:20] So for the first 100 years of our nation, transportation was really about moving goods and less about moving people. To build a nation, you had to build an economy and to do that you had to move goods and so the first transportation infrastructure in America was really focused on using our waterways and then building a massive railway system to move goods across a huge geographical expanse.

Beth: [00:02:47] And if you are interested in the movement of goods along waterways in modern times, our contributor Courtney has a Nightly Nuance about that for you on Patreon, where she's making the case that waterways are still the most [00:03:00] efficient way to move, particularly agricultural goods, and that we need a lot more investment in that area to continue to realize efficiency there.

Sarah: [00:03:09] As I sit on the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in Paducah, Kentucky, where our number one industry is the maritime industry, I agree.

Beth: [00:03:16] So what we think of currently as our transportation infrastructure, and sometimes the only thing we think about as infrastructure at all is relatively new and that is the interstate highway system, which was the result of the federal aid highway act of 1956 that president Eisenhower signed into law.

Sarah: [00:03:36] Eisenhower really led the way on this. Congress allocated $30 billion in 1956. That's wait for it, $294 billion in today's money. This was to construct 41,000 miles of interstate highway. It was the biggest construction project in US history at that point and the project was funded by an increase in the gas tax and other taxes and really the focus was national security. Eisenhower, and many members of Congress [00:04:00] saw an interconnected roadway system is vital to our national security and Eisenhower had seen Germany's Autobahn during World War II and as a result made a national highway system, one of his top priorities as president.

Beth: [00:04:13] Throughout the late fifties and the 1960s, the work began to develop that interstate highway system and our bridges. We invested an enormous amount in it, and that's where our focus still is today. For average citizens, transportation means thinking about roads and highways and our personal vehicles.

Sarah: [00:04:31] Now in this episode, we want to talk about the state of that highway investment that we made back in the fifties and sixties and, and what that car first focus in planning means for our urban areas and we'll also explore our next phase of transportation infrastructure and what that might look like.

Beth: [00:04:50] So thinking [00:05:00] about where we are today, much like we've discussed with water and energy, maintaining our transportation infrastructure has largely not been a priority and because of that, we see a confluence of problems. Remember our friend Joseph Kane from the Brookings Institute? Here's how he describes it.

Joseph Kane: [00:05:20] That's the big problem is, is we're in an era of repair and replacement as I like to say. It's not just building the shiny new object, but it's actually taking care of a lot of the assets that we've already built out for decades here.

Sarah: [00:05:33] So we have a lot of things that need fixin, as we say in the south. Everyone wants to be at the ribbon cutting. Everybody wants to have a new road named after them. It's less impactful to spend your political capital and taxpayer dollars on maintenance, especially maintaining something that's already been built and named after somebody else.

Beth: [00:05:51] Sarah, I remember recently we got together to work on our book and we were driving down the road and it was just pothole after pothole after pothole and the [00:06:00] Kentucky legislature had recently been forced on some very important reproductive rights legislation, that is clearly unconstitutional in our current structure and I said to you like, well, I'm so glad that they're focused on what matters there in Frankfurt and that is true in my home now as well, because I live right across the Ohio river from Cincinnati and the connection of Northern Kentucky to Cincinnati is critically important, not just for workers who commute every day into the greater Cincinnati area, but also for the movement of goods across the country and the Brent Spence Bridge, the primary way you're able to get from Ohio to Northern Kentucky at this particular point is a national symbol of our failure to properly maintain our infrastructure and the cost to this region of that bridge so frequently being in disrepair is enormous.

Sarah: [00:06:54] We also talked to one of our longtime friends of the show, Sabrina Drago, who's a civil engineer in the [00:07:00] executive director of Sacramento Transportation Authority about the ongoing transportation saga all the way on the other end of the country. Alas, if the bridge in Beth's neighborhood was the only issue. There is another ongoing saga of highway one in California. Here's Sabrina.

Sabrina Drago: [00:07:15] So highway one, I love it. I love driving it. It is beautiful. It probably wouldn't be constructed if it was a new road today. We understand a lot more about, um, soil dynamics, the move, the movement of dirt, climate change has impacted the rainfall in the area as well so they're dealing with surge so the ocean is rising, um, and along the California coast, but additionally, it's kind of changed the microclimate a bit and there is, um, a higher precipitation along the coast as well. So the ground is wetter so the area is prone to landslides.

So you have this natural hill and then you cut this little L shape out of it to build the [00:08:00] road and then you build a wall so that the hill doesn't fall into the road and then you build a wall underneath the road so that the road doesn't fall into the ocean. All very good things but with this extra rain, the ground is really wet and it doesn't, can't go anywhere cause it keeps raining and keeps raining so the ground gets wetter and so wet dirt weighs more than dry dirt and then over time, the weight is greater than it can hold than the wall can hold back and the road failed. This is what we call it, fell into the ocean.

Sarah: [00:08:33] You know, Beth, you and I took a trip down highway one with my dad a couple of years ago and it really is spectacular and it really is beautiful and I think what's hard is that the highway system is one of the best and most impactful ways to take in the breadth of the United States. To really, we were talking about infrastructure in real life [00:09:00] and the highway system is the best, real life way to understand what is contained inside this country we call the United States, geographically, culturally, and all those ways and I think that's the struggle, right? Is that there are these projects and investments that maybe wouldn't happen today, but because they're already here and we understand how important they are and because they become a part of, of tourism and just instrumental part in local communities, economies, it becomes an emotional question almost.

Beth: [00:09:41] I think with all of our infrastructure, it's important to remember that we're making choices, we're prioritizing some things over other things, and those choices are not always scientific, logistical, economically motivated. There is an element of sentimentality. You know, I think about hearkening back to The [00:10:00] Big Thirst about water, the story of that water management in Las Vegas, in the decision to cut out little fountains in malls and banks but to keep things like the fountains at the Bellagio, because you have this emotional attachment to them, you have them as an economic proposition attracting all this tourism and so you make what seems like a really strange judgment, uh, to keep the enormous fountains that are outside instead of having all of the smaller fountains that use less water and are probably easier to maintain and I think as we look at our highway system, we're going to have some of those same judgements.

It is going to be enormously expensive to take care of some of these highways that we wouldn't build today, as Sabrina said. And also, I think we'll probably make that judgment in a lot of cases, uh, because those highways are special because they attract tourism because they make us want to see parts of our great country.

Sarah: [00:10:56] What's hard is we're trying to, to make those decisions that [00:11:00] every time involve an emotional component and I think that, you know, that's true of all infrastructure and I think that's a pattern we're seeing across these episodes is that it's, we're not just putting numbers in a spreadsheet and making a call. That there are emotional considerations with regards to past projects and we're not just deciding which past projects to maintain or prioritize. We are also deciding what new projects should be brought into the world and that process is also not as simple as plugging numbers into a spreadsheet.

Sabrina also helped us understand how we can go from these big ideas to actually getting projects off the ground and we asked her why every project, particularly every transportation project seems to take so long and what it looks like to go from a, we need a road or a bridge or a tunnel, remember the tunnel in Massachusetts, to actually seeing change in our community.

[00:12:00] Sabrina Drago: [00:11:59] Transportation is kind of three layers. You have local, you have regional, and then you have, um, more of a national thing. So focus on just the local level, a city or a county um, will do, uh, a regional plan, a general plan um, that usually is 20 to 40 years in the future of where they think the, um, the resident, the constituents are going to be and how they're going to choose to move. So that's, that's the initial groundwork is we know that, you know, there's an average of 7% of people are moving into our, into our city every year, over the next 20 years, we're gonna need this many more homes, where can they go and they developed the land use policy, and then they build transportation around that because transportation is ultimately, um, an expression of human behavior and, um, you can influence how people move, but it's, you, you cannot force them.

You can not just say you can not drive here. Um, they have to, you have to create the incentives for them to not want to drive and then you break it down and you [00:13:00] get smaller layers of, um, okay, so we need to widen this road, for example. We like want to add a dedicated lane just for buses. We want to add a dedicated lane just for bicycles, and we want to make an eight foot sidewalk to make it very pedestrian friendly. The planners say, we want this the road to look like this and then there are federal state and some city guidelines of what the road would actually look like. So there's rules all the way down before engineering, you have to do environmental as well.

So they analyze, um, the impact to the natural environment and then there's also what they do, environmental justice, which is actually looking at the community and making sure that it is not negatively impacting, um, uh, lower socioeconomic, um, subgroup, which is with, I think it's been within my lifetime that they've started doing that and that's to help offset the years and years during the, um, highway, uh, projects that where they just bifurcated [00:14:00] cities. You're doing all that and then while you're doing that, you're looking to see how much this is going to cost.

Beth: [00:14:05] It really helped me to hear from Sabrina about this process and to think about what it costs just to plan a new project, not counting getting into it and then getting into the maintenance of it and so that's where we want to go next. The, the elephant in the room is the money. Who pays for these projects and how do they pay for it?

Sarah: [00:14:27] And as we noted at the start of the show, a lot of our current highway systems were built with federal funding that came from the federal aid highway act of 1956 and because of that history and proposals like the Biden administration's American jobs plan, you might think that federal money is really the main source for funding, transportation projects, when I think it's so important to remember this great statistic states and localities have to cover 90% of all transportation and water operations spending national each year. 90%.

Adie Tomer: [00:14:56] You would hope we would have national leadership to set a vision for the country. That they [00:15:00] would say we will be stronger together, including if we band together like volunteerism, right. It kinda is, you know. You're gonna volunteer your tax dollars. You don't even need to do any, you don't have to get out of bed and do anything in particular, just we're going to do this together and we're going to help these folks.

But the way the system set up, you know, one of the things that folks don't realize, cause you see that common red and blue interstate symbol or the black and white US highway sign. All those are federal roads. Those are not federal roads. Yeah. It's the federal interstate system. Those highways belong to the state.

Beth: [00:15:31] And so where are the states getting that money?

Sabrina Drago: [00:15:35] You pay gas taxes. So a federal gas tax for a standard combustion engine is 18.40 cents a gallon and then diesel, I think is 24.4 and then states generally also do gas tax. So here in California, it's over 50 cents a gallon. I think we're the highest in the country. We just raised ours a couple of years ago. Um, but like the federal gas tax hasn't been raised since 93, and that goes into the federal pot, it's called the [00:16:00] Highway Trust Fund.

The highway trust fund actually went bankrupt in 2008 and, uh, since then Congress has to authorize general revenue funds to keep it whole and that is mostly for capital projects so that's actually constructing, widening, not doing maintenance and operations. Additionally, they also have federal has other pots of money. So they have the Fixing America's Surface Transportation act, the FAST act, which is a way for, um, agencies to submit grant applications. A lot of states and cities and counties also have their own source of revenue via DMV fees, when you register your car or, um, some like California, we toll our bridges as well in California.

So that's another way to generate revenue or through sales tax and then a lot of it is, you know, figuring out what what's available and you have sometimes have to design your project to be eligible. Like for starting in the seventies, if you wanted federal dollars to build your [00:17:00] freeway, your speed limit can only be 55 miles an hour and that's because of the gas shortage and then they changed it in 1996. So most of, most of the funding for transportation projects are actually grants, but a lot of it is competitive where you're actually competing against your sister cities or states for that funding.

Sarah: [00:17:18] Okay. So let's go back to Sabrina's hypothetical project price tag of $10 million dollars, which is probably conservative for most transportation infrastructure projects. Why does it cost so much to begin with and what aspect relates to labor costs?

Beth: [00:17:32] So one of our contributors to this series, Jordan, works in construction and has given us a lot of perspective on labor cost and construction. So you're going to hear her voice here and you can hear her full analysis over on Patreon.

Jordan: [00:17:45] So I wanted to talk about the cost of construction for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is that I feel like it can be a little bit of a mystery to a lot of people as to why construction costs so much. For [00:18:00] example, you might be excited to hear that there's a new elementary school being built in your area, but then shocked when you hear that the budget for the elementary school is $15 million.

So when talking about costs and construction price, escalation is really, really important to understand. So price escalation is similar to inflation. The government measures the inflation numbers from year to year and from quarter to quarter and generally over the last 20 or 30 years, inflation has hovered around 2%. Changes a little bit each year and we've made some news in the past couple of quarters because it's been a little bit higher than that but as a general matter, it's been about two percent.

Construction price escalation is about 5%. So somewhere in between the cost of college and healthcare, in terms of how quickly the price of construction is rising in relation to inflation. So 5% is a big deal. It [00:19:00] means that every year that you put off a project, it becomes 5% more expensive. If we go back to that, $15 million elementary school that we mentioned at the beginning and we say that it's going to take three years to fundraise the $15 million. By the time you're done fundraising, the elementary school is now 15% more expensive. Now it's $17.3 million dollars.

Sarah: [00:19:37] And also some of these big price tags are just uniquely American or at least it's sometimes it seems that way. You know, there's a country like France who is completely unionized so you really can't blame labor costs, still building subway tracks so much cheaper per mile than we do in the United States.

Adie Tomer: [00:19:53] There's two stories being baked into one and they're different. There are certain projects in the [00:20:00] United States that are really expensive relative to our global peers, in particular projects that involve major tunnels. There's a few reasons for that. Number one is when you dig underground, especially like big, old, like super wide tunnels, like you don't know what you're going to hit so there's already all of a sudden, just some like risks and unknown factors there but also we don't standardize those projects, which is a wonky way of saying every time we dig a tunnel, we dig it a little bit different in different parts of the country.

Sarah: [00:20:28] And I think that's another really important point. It's not just oversight and funding that gets complicated when you have a system that is as big and diverse and decentralized as ours, but it is also the cost, right? It's not the funding, it's the actual cost. When Nebraska is starting from scratch on a project, because it can, instead of saying, oh, we've learned so many things from this project here, here and here so that we can centralize this process for you, we can build in some efficiencies [00:21:00] and we really don't do that in the United States.

Beth: [00:21:02] And we place a premium on sort of the marketing side of things in the United States. So some of our projects are expensive relative to other countries because of the extras that we include.

Adie Tomer: [00:21:14] The second avenue subway in New York, which is this new subway on the upper east side is the most expensive subway built in the world in human history per mile. A huge part of the reason it was so expensive, they've also built the nicest subway station.

Sarah: [00:21:27] That's nice. Everybody likes a fancy subway station, but is that the right place to spend our money, especially when the whole point of a subway station is to get out of the subway station and onto your destination. Here's another more functional example.

Adie Tomer: [00:21:41] The vast majority of infrastructure projects in the United States are cost competitive with our global peers. The cost for us to widen roads, let's say, what we have figured out is that actually the paving part is extremely cost similar to our peers, but American communities [00:22:00] put up and I understand why, they put up those huge sound barrier walls. Right? Those are mad, expensive. Other places don't put them up, right. So what happens are our highway widening looks more expensive, but it's not actually more expensive. We just started layering more amenities and other things on top of it. So to boil it down, These are not always apples to apples comparisons. We're often like we got a whole cornucopia of different fruit and we're trying to act like the tastes the same and they just don't.

Beth: [00:22:26] So when we talk about things like sound barriers, that's not wrong. All of our infrastructure is about thinking, how do we want to live and what do we need to build to support that?

Sarah: [00:22:35] And listen, I wish I had sound barriers where I live, oh my god.

Beth: [00:22:38] So we're not being critical of this. We just want to understand. We specifically want to understand what we're looking at when we think about cost and numbers and this is where Sarah, I would just like to put in a little plug for Earmarks. I know that Earmarks are very controversial and I have spent a lot of my adult life believing that Earmarks lead to the classic waste, fraud and abuse, [00:23:00] but the more we think about infrastructure and these unique needs community by community, and really the importance of communities making decisions like actually we don't need the sound barriers or here we really do, or that's just what we want. That's what we desire for ourselves here in this space.

I think that localized representation in Congress is not only really important so that people have a chance to advocate for the dollars they need to bring back to their communities for these projects, but also you know, very congruent with the constitutional design. I think it's compelling to remember that the main power ascribed to Congress in the constitution is the power of spending money and right alongside that, we designed this district by district representation and so I get a lot more comfortable when I think about earmarks as we get into this series and consider how project by project different parts of the United States probably would prioritize really different things.

Sarah: [00:23:57] I think infrastructure, [00:24:00] transportation in particular, offers such a great moment to remind ourselves, like, what are we doing here? And I don't mean just what are our priorities for infrastructure? Why are we together as a nation state? And it's not so that every little locale can tackle every single problem as an island, right? There is strength in coming together and helping each other solve each other's problems. There's a strength in pooling our money and helping places that might not have the financial resources. There's a strength in other areas of the country and their economies and their industries, helping those parts of the country solve those problems, right?

And I just think, you know, it's just an important reminder that as siloed as we can become, as polarized as we can become in the United States, that there are things that knit us together. Actual physical things like the interstate highway system [00:25:00] and the broader prioritization and value system that props up that physical system, which is that there are some things we will tackle together. There are some things that we'll be more successful if we approach the problem solving as a nation, instead of as each individual community.

Beth: [00:25:22] And the delicate dance that we're always doing is how do we tackle those things together while maintaining space for our local preferences, desires, landscapes because I don't think that a lot of Americans want to see uh, such a standardized method of constructing roads, bridges, subways, rail, that the country starts to feel like one big blob. I complain about that when I travel, right. If I pull up to a shopping center that looks like everywhere America, I'm kinda bummed about it.

At the same time, I want the reliability of the highway [00:26:00] system. So we're like balancing all of these factors and I think a certain amount of cost and efficiency just has to be baked in because we value those local differences along with the reliability and the imperative of having a national identity that we share some of this cost together.

Sarah: [00:26:18] And so we're spending a lot of time thinking about community priorities, state priorities, national priorities, and shifting our thinking to a more collective framework, right. I think that's really important when we talk about infrastructure, but it's not just as communities that we need to shift our thinking. Over and over again, throughout the series, you know, we're talking about the impact of infrastructure in real life and we're talking about how we think about it as individuals, not just communities, states, nations, and a huge part of that, particularly with transportation infrastructure is remembering that we're paying for it personally and we don't just mean tax dollars and we don't just mean gas tax. These [00:27:00] priorities that we're making, they don't just impact communities that they impact us as individuals, even if the incentives and the costs are hidden from us.

Adie Tomer: [00:27:09] The majority of Americans live in the suburbs. Majority Americans live in single family homes so put that kind of image in your head. You step outside your door or like your garage door, right every morning. Do you really have a choice in how you get around? Probably not and especially if you care about time in any way, so you get in the car. Right and we know almost every single car, um, right now runs on gas and we know you just got to look at tailpipes, especially when you're sitting in traffic, especially on a colder day, you know, and you just see all that smog coming out and all of us know now what that is.

It's not, doesn't just make you cough. It's absolutely ruining our planet for our kids and the generations to follow, to say nothing of every other living thing we share the planet with and the reality is you don't really pay a cost for that solution. It's [00:28:00] free. It's more than free. It's actually almost again to use a kind of wonky word, but incentivized and what I mean by that, the market tells you, you know what? Go buy that single family home. No, one's sent you a bill for that road right outside your house.

Right. You do pay it by your property taxes by the way, but it's not like a bill for you, right. You don't feel it that way and then we have all these other kind of hidden costs, but the hidden costs are actually elements that don't tell people the right thing to do for the environment. So that's what the idea of internalizing these costs means is we've got to start telling people, look, you know, I love, to be clear. I love, not just the country, I love America. I love our kind of generally speaking, like libertarian approach. You know, like Hey, like as long as you're not hurting anyone else, like you can kind of do what you want.

Here's the problem is we are hurting ourselves and those around us and we're not, we're not sending that signal so in the future is, Hey, if you've got enough money, you want to have some mansion where your [00:29:00] ex you know, many miles away from everywhere, you need to go and you've got money to put, you know, whether it's gas or frankly, just electricity in your car. That's fine. You can do that but folks need to better understand that like, Hey, you living out there, there's a lot of storm water that comes off those roads and all those parking lots and it's toxic. I mean, it pushes the water utility to do a whole lot more filtering so we don't poison all the beautiful animals in the water. Right.

Um, and then if, and then of course, right now, while we're running on gas, we're polluting the air. Like there's a lot of challenges here, so we've got to start telling them folks, look like you were kind of sold a bill of goods in the like early 20th century. This is like the first suburbs that this is going to be okay but we know more now and it's not totally. Okay. So we've, it's not that we have to outline anything. It's just, we've got to start in America, we work off money, right? That's the currency. Like it so that's our common language. So we kind of start telling people what things cost.

Sarah: [00:29:58] What I really love about that too [00:30:00] is there's a cost, not just financially, there's a cost, not just environmentally, but I love the thing he says at the very beginning, which is you don't really have a choice for how to get around and that's, to me, It's like, we've, we've adopted this narrative that I want the freedom to move and that means cars, but I would like the freedom to move in not a car. To me that's another type of freedom and another type of Liberty and a personal cost that we've all shouldered through this narrative is only having one choice and I don't mean just I'm a privileged person and I'd like to be able to take a bike or walk.

I mean that, for those in poverty, one of the biggest risk factors is mechanical problems or not having a car and that their lives and their options are limited because we have said freedom means a car, but really what we mean is we're limiting you to the only way to get freedom is through a car and I think that's another personal cost that we've [00:31:00] sort of adopted without realizing that that is a limitation as much as it is a freedom.

Beth: [00:31:05] I feel such a tension about any conversation about the suburbs, because I live in the suburbs and I love living in the suburbs. I can't overstate how much I love where I live. I love the environment that my kids have in our neighborhood and so for a while, when I was kind of looking at the impact of suburban living, I started to feel really guilty. I started to feel like, oh, maybe we should move to a city. You know, a lot of this is really environmentally problematic and it is seriously expensive and now I'm just trying to take it all in and realize number one, there are trade offs with every decision about where and how people live and number two, we have built out a lot of suburbs across the country.

So it's a little bit like those highways. We've put some infrastructure in place that we might not do again today with what we know now [00:32:00] and it's there and so we have to make choices about how we adapt it and how we preserve it and so I'm thinking a lot about how can the suburbs meet some of these challenges more uniquely? And I do think there are some really interesting transportation opportunities beyond just sort of drive your car to a parking lot and hop on a bus to get into the city. What else can we be doing to connect to the suburbs, to outside areas in ways that are both environmentally responsible and like you said, Sarah, just opening up different choices and greater equity for people in those sort of greater metropolitan area.

Sarah: [00:32:38] And I think we have to stop hiding the cost of the suburbs. Right? I think that's the other part of it is no one's saying tear down the suburbs. I mean, some people are, but like you said, they're here, but we can most certainly stop incentivizing them in the ways that we have that push that cost onto other communities. [00:33:00] That's not to moralize about the choice to live in a suburb. It's just to be honest and transparent with the cost. Just because our country decided and used policies to prioritize the suburbs doesn't mean we have to continue that journey and I think in particular, when you look at the history of this particular infrastructure in America, it's littered with stories of inequity and exploitation and racism, especially the interstate highway system.

Adie Tomer: [00:33:28] It's so hard. It's so hard. If you want to find heartbreak in infrastructure, it's everywhere. You know, it's these, it's these highways that tour through every big city in America just destroyed homes and businesses. No one asked them, by the way. You know, they didn't like come to some community meeting, you know, which is hard for some of us this age to understand that like that was done. They were just, no, you know, this is, this is our land now. We're gonna floor this through and, and by the way, you know, it was overtly racist policy.

It's going to take some [00:34:00] time for us to both charge more for certain things, and then explain to the public that, Hey, we're going to invest more in certain places because these physical communities mean like the neighborhoods have not gotten the investment you've got and you may have not back to where we started. You may have not noticed all the investments you got, but you did and we're going to have to start prioritizing over here because we are a stronger society. We're a stronger economy when we're a more equal society in a more equal economy and that's what we've got to do.

Beth: [00:34:48] So we've had hidden costs. We've had hidden investment and we need to find an approach, as Adie says, a platform that works for everyone, that's going to require some innovation. It's going to require some intentional [00:35:00] prioritization. It's going to require some give and take, moments where you see money going to places that don't make sense to you. I say to myself, as much as anyone else, but with all of these communities and projects that could use investment that perhaps need investment, how do we know how to get started?

Sarah: [00:35:18] Maybe the first step is dramatically expanding our timeline.

Joseph Kane: [00:35:22] Infrastructure is, as I like to say a generational investment and so when you build something or maintain something, you're not just talking over the next three to five years, as much as that's how we're thinking of the political cycle here in Washington and elsewhere, you're, you're really talking to the next 25, 30, 40, maybe even 50 plus years.

Beth: [00:35:42] And I think there's something really wonderful about expanding our timeline in that way, because we shouldn't make quick decisions. You know, thinking back to Sabrina's explanation of how expensive it is just to get a project conceptualized in engineering terms, we need to be really thoughtful and have [00:36:00] significant debate and planning and all of the time needed for environmental studies to make sure that anything new we're building is being built with everything that we know being considered and that really gets us to the climate impact because in addition to thinking about affordability and convenience, and all of those community signifiers that we were talking about, the marketing value of places, the beauty of places, there's nothing wrong with that, we have to look at environmental impact.

You know, we've spent a lot of time today focused on automotive infrastructure because we recognize just today, we're in a car first environment. That's where the energy is, but anyone who lives in an area that has seen a lot of construction projects that are car first construction projects knows that sometimes it feels like all you get from those projects in the end is even more congestion and pollution.

Sarah: [00:36:50] And also even the automotive infrastructure is just a cog in the wheel. Freight travel has grown three times faster than our overall population from [00:37:00] 1990 to 2018 and transportation is now the largest single greenhouse gas emitting sector, accounting for 28% of natural emissions. We take too many short trips. We take too many long trips. We have too many trucks on the road. This is all a part of the climate, impact.

Beth: [00:37:16] So knowing that that's where we are today, that we rely on freight significantly, still for movement of goods throughout the country and for movement of people throughout the country, we need to think about investment and how we can change our traditional approach in terms of both what we fund and how we fund it.

Joseph Kane: [00:37:34] Building the same things in the same ways that we've done for the past half century plus, going back to the Eisenhower administration. You know, building a bunch of highways and, and assuming that everyone's just going to get into a car. Um, I don't think we can make those same assumptions anymore, uh, that we realize nationally and, and down to an individual level that what people [00:38:00] need, they don't need a highway, no one needs a highway. They need to get to work affordably, reliably. They need to get to the hospital safely. They need to pick up their kids in easy ways and that shouldn't be predicated on, on car ownership per se. Yet, I think we're finding and in terms of the environment, in terms of our safety, in terms of our affordability, it costs a lot of money to own or rent a car, or have a car loan, to say nothing of insurance, uh, and other costs associated with it.

So I think we have to look at our transportation needs in, in multiple dimensions and evolving dimensions that yes, you know, for better or worse cars are going to be part of that but it's not just cars and it's not just roads and bridges that it's, it's about pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. It's about transit improvements where we know there's a lot of uncertainties right now coming out of the pandemic of what is transit even going to look like considering a lot of people haven't taken uh, recently to, to the extent that there's private sector [00:39:00] innovation here, in terms of Uber, Lyft, and other ride sharing options and we can't forget, uh, the rise of e-commerce and our freight movement that you know, how we order goods and how we shop has changed radically over the past couple of decades.

That has a huge uh, impact on our transportation systems, uh, at our port facilities, we think of our rail facilities in terms of our freight rail or private rail, and also the potential for high-speed rail and, and, uh, passenger rail.

Beth: [00:39:28] I love that shift, Sarah, from thinking, we need a road here to thinking here's where people need to get. You know, here's the goal that we're running at so that we can at least expand sort of the white board of options that we're considering.

Sarah: [00:39:41] Well, and I think the important part is that we spent a lot of time in the last episode, talking about how the energy sector is going through a huge transition and a huge piece of that puzzle is that the automotive industry is going through a huge transition and that we're looking at big innovations. We're not going to [00:40:00] quite, you know, turn a corner and be the Jetsons with our flying cars. I know we're all still very disappointed about that. I personally am very disappointed about that. Sorry about that.

But just because it's more incremental doesn't mean that it's still not going to be big dramatic change and I think that that's what we're seeing in the automotive industry as well, with electric cars, which is going to require an entirely different type of transportation infrastructure. That's what we're seeing with high speed rail and that's what we're seeing in a lot of transportation industry where the thinking is moving beyond cars.

Beth: [00:40:37] So we asked Sabrina what innovations she's seeing right now in terms of road design and other opportunities.

Sabrina Drago: [00:40:46] I have been really blessed and excited that I've gotten to see a lot of innovation over the course of my career. A city or a county um, we'll do a plan, a general plan, um, that usually is 20 to 40 years in the [00:41:00] future of where they think the constituents are going to be. I mean, we're doing studies to, uh, connect a city where the traffic signals read that your car is coming and they can tell how many cars are behind it to change, change the light. There's a terminology called accelerated bridge construction, ABC, and you actually build the new bridge next to the existing bridge and then overnight they can demolish the bridge and then it's on little rollers and they move the bridge in place and then the next day the freeway is opened up or that the road is opened up again. The really nice thing about, um, the infrastructure package that the Biden administration put forward is that it allows for more eligible funding for those types of projects.

Sarah: [00:41:46] And look, let's not paint too rosy of a picture. Maintenance is expensive and so is innovation and we know as all of you listen to talk of high-speed trains and self-driving cars that [00:42:00] you are also wondering about the big price tags associated with that and that's understandable.

Sabrina Drago: [00:42:05] It's one of those that is a lot of money and it's not, it's not going to be this in 10 years we're going to have completely transformed the infrastructure in this country. So we have not done a very good job talking about the importance of maintenance and operations, um, in regards to transportation, um, there's the general premise that roads are free. We haven't been able to maintain our infrastructure as it is. Additionally, infrastructure is not intended to be there for 2000 years. Life cycle of a road, depending on if it's asphalt or concrete is anywhere from 10 to 40 years. Um, bridges are usually about 50 years and, and that's, and that's assuming that you're doing the proper maintenance.

Because we have not been able to maintain our, our transportation network as well as we would've liked over the last 30 years, we have an [00:43:00] opportunity to completely rethink it now and, and, and that is a as we're repairing our roads and there are definitely some parts of the country that there still needs to be widenings. They still need to complete the high occupancy vehicle lanes. I mean, that absolutely is a true statement. I mean, but alongside of it, we need to be planning for, okay, what do we want, how do want people to travel in the next 20 years? And that's creating kind of a microcosm of local of just you know, let's invest in, um, local grocery stores and local childcare and local hair salons where people can walk or ride their bikes.

Let's connect people that are commuting. Let's create a really good, what we call a bus rapid transit system, which is an express bus. There's only a couple of stops along the way and then you have to run it where it makes sense. You know, you can't do it every hour on the hour. I might be able to leave work at five, four days a week but what about my kid having soccer practice at four 30 [00:44:00] on Thursdays, and I have to leave an hour early. So do I drive that day?

Joseph Kane: [00:44:03] The idea of accessibility that can people use our transportation systems, not just cars, but transit, uh, walking, bicycling. Can they actually access where they need to go? And so there are new what are called accessibility measures that are coming, coming to the forefront as well and so there's a, there's a lot of promise I think, in, in, in remeasuring and rethinking, uh, even what the needs are here uh, and so it's not like we're starting from ground zero on some of this, but I think it's more, how do we replicate this? How do we scale uh, these new ways of measuring to more places, uh, so that it becomes more consistent and it becomes more just what we do, uh, in how we assess our needs over time.

Beth: [00:44:44] And I think as we consider all of that money, we also have to build in the fact that there are going to be places where we spend a lot of money and there's what seems like failure. I remember, uh, a local project to put in a trolley and the trolley doesn't go very fast. It doesn't go very far and it was really, [00:45:00] really expensive and so there's this balance of like how much more money should have been put in that project for people to see its potential versus should the project ever have been done? Because from the beginning it was such a risk. It is really hard to innovate in an area where everything you make is enormously expensive, has the potential to be enormously dangerous.

You know, there are just so many factors that come to the table around these projects and again, when we look at that longer timeline, I think it helps us have a little bit more patience for some of those failures and a little bit more patience for experimentation but if we look back on American history to the moments when we've had prolific generational investment in infrastructure, we can see rewards. We did it in the mid 20th century when we were experiencing huge population growth. Now we have the opposite problem. We don't have a boom in population in the United States. So how do we get everyone on board with this kind of generational [00:46:00] change? Here's Adie.

Adie Tomer: [00:46:01] We are in a different moment, not just in terms of population, but we know a lot more about the world. We know that we can't just endlessly grow outward. We know that we need to protect the natural environment. So there is actually though this perfect moment to say, Hey, we need to build differently, not just from the new deal, but really prior to the new deal and henceforth until about pretty recent. Like we need to build differently and we need to be really strategic with our investments and because we're growing slower and this is the way I think we should sell it to the American public is think of it as putting money away in like your IRA. I want you to put a little bit more money away right now. Here's what I'm gonna promise you is that you're getting more money later and how infrastructure makes more money later is we actually reduce our cost burden down the road.

Sarah: [00:46:47] I think this is an excellent opportunity to think about something that comes up with all infrastructure, but particularly transportation and I am worried will be a huge part of the conversation because of [00:47:00] the shifting population, which is scarcity. When we are building actual physical roads, bridges infrastructure, even to maintain or improve our electrical grid and our water infrastructure, how do we not bump into that scarcity mindset? How do we bump into the idea of, well, why should our tax dollars go to a project in Alaska? I don't live in Alaska. I don't care about Alaska. Why should we spend money on high-speed rail that won't change anything about my daily life? And I think that's really hard and when we talk about the cost benefit equation of any type of infrastructure, there's that undercurrent of scarcity that really affects the conversation.

Beth: [00:47:46] And that undercurrent of scarcity at a different level affects our willingness to pay user fees. We have a whole debate going on right now about, uh, the gas tax in Kentucky [00:48:00] as more electric cars are on the road and sharing the highways. What's the responsibility of electric car owners to contribute in terms of some kind of user fee and at the same time you want to incentivize electric car ownership and perhaps one way to do that is avoidance of the gas tax and so there's a real cost benefit analysis to be done at every level when you think about what incentives you're providing to people to use the forms of transportation that are most environmentally friendly and most efficient.

Sarah: [00:48:29] Well, and maybe that is the, the way in which we can move the conversation forward and be good transportation citizens beyond just making good choices about our personal driving or our personal gas consumption. Right? Maybe the way that we can do that is to constantly remind ourselves and those around us that we're not plugging numbers into a spreadsheet. That we're not just doing math. That we're not [00:49:00] just deciding whether something is worth the cost, we're deciding whether it's worth it for our community.

Right. That we're not just putting numbers on a sheet and deciding if we want to pay for it, we're deciding if the dollars we're spending match the priorities and the values of our local communities and our states and our country. That is an emotional calculus. That even when people seem to be making cold-hearted calculations about where they live and what they drive and how much they spend on gas, that there are incentives that work there. That there's psychology at work there.

There are real flaws in our thinking that we have to be careful about and that we have to watch out for and that we think that we're paying attention to all the factors but we know from our history, that communities are left behind, that perspectives are ignored, that costs are hidden. If we can keep that in [00:50:00] mind as we move forward and as we transition and as we look for opportunities for innovation, I think that that's a really important part of being a good citizen when it comes to transportation infrastructure.

Beth: [00:50:12] And if I use Joseph's question of kind of, what is the goal here? You know, whether we're talking about cars or people who ride the subway or people who ride bikes or buses, I want us to be able to move around in the world affordably so there aren't access issues for people. I want us to be able to move around safely, both in terms of the actual vehicles themselves and in terms of the experience of being in on and around those vehicles, I want us to be able to move pretty comfortably. I just think that's an important standard of living in a country like ours and I think it's important to our country continuing to build a sustainable growing economy.

Sarah: [00:50:57] That's what I was going to say. I want us to move around [00:51:00] sustainably and I think sustainability has not been an important part of our calculus for most of our history. We just wanted to move. We wanted to move goods. We wanted to move ourselves. We prioritized growth and I think prioritizing sustainability is a huge component truly of not just transportation infrastructure, but every piece of the infrastructure puzzle that we've talked about so far in this series and that we're going to continue to talk about. That for most of American history, growth was the priority and that we are coming to a moment in American history where sustainability has to be the priority.

Beth: [00:51:43] As we think about the marriage between sustainability and growth, I think is a nice transition into reframing how we picture infrastructure. There's been a lot of political football about the definition of infrastructure and what counts and in our next episode, we're going to talk about [00:52:00] both broadband and childcare as those pieces of our society that support other important aspects that provide a foundation for the economy.

So we're looking forward to talking with you then on our next episode of Infrastructure in Real Life.

Sarah: Infrastructure in Real Life was produced by Studio D Podcast Production. Alise Napp is our managing director. Megan Hart is our community engagement manager.

Beth: Special thanks to every expert who spoke to us for this series and our series contributors: Alyssa Maxwell, Monte Lawson, Courtney Verclare and Jordan Bond.

Sarah: Ray Creative and Kathleen Shannon put together the very cool groovy graphics for this series. You can purchase a companion book box for the series and join our extra credit book club through Wild Geese bookshop.

Beth: Our show is listener supported. Special thanks to our executive producers.

Executive Producers (Read their own names): Martha Bronitsky, Linda Daniel, Ali Edwards, Janice Elliot, Sarah Greepup, Julie Haller, Helen Handley, Tiffany Hassler, Barry Kaufman, Molly Kohrs.

The Kriebs, Laurie LaDow, Lilly McClure, David McWilliams, Jared Minson, Emily Neesley, Danny Ozment, The Pentons, Tawni Peterson, Tracy Puthoff, Sarah Ralph, Jeremy Sequoia, Karin True.

Beth: Amy Whited, Joshua Allen, Morgan McHugh, Nichole Berklas, Paula Bremer and Tim Miller

Sarah: To support Pantsuit Politics, and receive lots of bonus features, visit patreon.com/pantsuit politics.

Beth: You can connect with us on our website, PantsuitPoliticsShow.com. Sign up for our weekly emails and follow us on Instagram @PantsuitPolitics.

Sarah: This was a delight.

Adie Tomer: It was a delight for me too.

Sarah: And we talked about infrastructure. I mean, how, how weird is that? Not usually a word that people use for infrastructure as a delight?

Adie Tomer: Well, yeah, no, but you did great, dude. We got some really bad questions on this [00:54:00] stuff, crazy impressive.

Sarah: Oh I bet. Well, thank you.

630 episodes