time to get off the infrastructure treadmill

Hwy 50 slide, @kellyinmedia
Hwy 50 slide, @kellyinmedia

With the recent storm damage to roadways, as well as some transit and rail lines, the governor has proposed about $600M in quick fixes. This adds on to $59B deferred maintenance on state highways, and $78B on local roads (the actual local roads number is likely much, much higher). Pretty soon, we’re talking real money.

I am not opposed to fixing storm damage, or to keeping roads in a state of good repair, abbreviated SOGR and often called “fix-it-first.” However, if it isn’t obvious by now, let me clearly state that we already have more infrastructure than we can ever afford to maintain. Even without climate change, we probably could not keep up, and with climate change, we don’t have a chance.

We have a transportation system built on the idea that someday there will be enough money, our kids will be richer, the economy will be better, the federal government will offer an infrastructure windfall, a fairy godmother will wave her wand. It’s not going to happen. The bills are already coming due, and there will be far greater bills coming due in the near future. Politicians, and the voters who support them, have been running a growth ponzi scheme (see https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2009/2/3/the-small-town-ponzi-scheme.html and other Strong Towns references), gathering the political and economic benefits today while putting the costs off to the future.

So, what to do? Well, first, stop digging the hole. We don’t need any new roads or highways, or additional lane miles. We do need to make the ones we have more efficient (defined as the number of people moved per hour per dollar, NOT the number of vehicles moved per hour per dollar), and on the whole, we do need to keep them repaired.

But we also need to realize that we have already overbuilt, and we are going to need to let go of some of it. Return rural roads and residential-only streets to gravel (bicyclists, get your mountain bikes). Stop paving parking lanes to the same high standards we use for the travel lanes, and in many cases, let them return to gravel as well. Or just remove some of them – we don’t need as many cars, either. Where sidewalks are needed and don’t exist, don’t take them out of people’s property, but out of the existing roadway. Where roads have been built wider than will ever be needed, take the extra width out and sell it off, with adjacent property owners getting first right of refusal. If there is no market, then give it away to the adjacent property owner. In suburban Sacramento county, there are streets that go from narrow two lane to four lane to extra-wide four lane and then back down again. These are safety hazards and maintenance nightmares. Let’s put this wasted road space back to productive use.

Katy Freeway (I-10) Texas; By Socrate76 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7444029
Katy Freeway (I-10) Texas; By Socrate76 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7444029

Freeways are the next big thing to reduce. The major Interstates are economically critical for freight movement and to a lesser degree people movement (though quality rail can take much of the pressure off). But they’ve gone from two lanes per direction to four to six to eight to ten, with Texas holding the record, I believe, at thirteen lanes per direction (in the U.S. at least). What are all the extra lanes for? Mostly commuters, and for about two hours a day. People who have been allowed and encouraged to live a long way from where they work, just to save on housing costs. But the bill has been paid by all of us, private car commuters or not, and we have only just begun to pay this bill. It may be larger than our entire economy. So, let’s shrink the Interstates back down, in most cases to two lanes per direction. The other freeways? Most of them are not needed at all and can be removed in favor of surface streets with a restored street grid. People will adjust over time, make different decisions, and it will take long enough to accomplish that it won’t be a sudden shock.

There is no better time than a crisis to re-think our transportation system. If we don’t think now, we will go back to sleep and assume that it is all going to work out, somehow, someday, some fairy godmother.

Each of these ideas deserves exploration, and I will do that as I can.

2 thoughts on “time to get off the infrastructure treadmill

  1. Are there potential incentive structures for promoting the decommissioning of excessive infrastructure? IOW, how do you turn the costs of deferred maintenance into a present day benefit?


    • Decommissioning does not help with money spent in the past, and in some cases it can cost quite a bit, even as much to remove something as it did to put it in. But the appeal is that every excess infrastructure removed is something that will not need to be maintained ever again, so the savings in the future are huge. In fact, if we don’t decommission some things, we won’t ever get out of the deferred maintenance deficit.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s