Funding is undoubtedly at the root of America’s infrastructure challenge. But lost in the debate over how to fund new investments is the question of how expeditiously government can deploy the money. The progressive movement was born more than a century ago from a desire to overcome machine politics and corporate graft by placing power in the hands of apolitical bureaucrats. But since the Watergate era, fears of bureaucratic abuse have spurred reforms designed explicitly to diffuse government authority. To put new federal dollars to their best use fighting decay and climate change, progressives must now acknowledge that they’ve overcorrected for yesterday’s mistakes.
Take, for example, the road and rail network serving Greater Boston, deemed to be America’s most congested metropolitan region. To get people out of their cars and onto public transit, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority would need to upgrade its commuter rail network, replacing slow, rickety, diesel locomotives with the speedier electric trainsets commonly used in New York, Philadelphia, Paris, and London. But that would require the MBTA to electrify its rail lines, which would cost a fortune — up to $29 billion, or roughly a full third of what the Biden administration has proposed to spend on public transit around the country. Amid lots of talk, regional rail appears cost prohibitive.
Fortunately, speeding rail commutes need not be an all-or-nothing proposition. One commuter rail line — the most heavily trafficked, in fact — is already electrified. Amtrak’s Acela and regional trains travel from New York to Boston on the same right-of-way that connects Providence. If the MBTA simply deployed electric trains on that route (freeing it to add new runs to other destinations, most notably Worcester, using the old diesel trains), it could nearly halve the commute times on its busiest line. For a pittance of the cost of nearly any other rail enhancement, that would draw cars off the region’s clogged roads, shorten automobile commutes for everyone else, and reduce New England’s carbon footprint.
The plan was one of the top priorities for former Governor Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island and Boston business executives concerned about the region’s commutability and housing stock. But after years of negotiations with Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, the project has foundered. The problem isn’t primarily money — it’s politics. Those same dollars could be invested in any number of other (more expensive) projects easing other communities’ access to Boston, and no one had the power to force the issue.
That element — the need to resolve trade-offs — sets infrastructure apart from other sorts of public investments. A new rail line cuts through a happy little neighborhood. A decommissioned expressway lengthens the drive for suburban commuters. In the bad old days, purportedly fair-minded expert bureaucrats — often bathed in the high-minded ideals of the early progressive movement — could cull power sufficient to overcome objections. Today, public authority is so widely diffused that no one has enough leverage to champion the greater good. No fly in the ointment should be able to veto single-handedly a project that could have a material impact on carbon emissions or affordable housing. Government needs to be able to strike a balance.
Where does the buck stop when addressing Boston’s transportation, housing, and climate challenges? Perhaps most squarely with the governors of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But neither has leverage over Amtrak, the federally-owned railroad that controls track movements. Moreover, Baker has to balance the concerns of state legislators who may object to shortening the commute for Rhode Islanders as Worcester sees itself in competition with Providence. Residents of New Bedford and Fall River chafe at long-delayed promises to build them a line of their own.
Today, an improvement that would benefit everyone remains politically out of reach. Without anyone capable of metabolizing the trade-offs, low-hanging fruit remains unpicked and unpickable.
Often obscured by funding battles, this is the essential story of infrastructure across the country. It’s one of the reasons why, as researchers at NYU have begun to highlight, building new systems is significantly more expensive in the United States than in other advanced industrial economies across Europe and Asia. China can erect high-speed rail networks in little time because residents of affected neighborhoods have no recourse when the government decides to wipe their homes off the map. America should never go that far, but as groups including Common Good have argued, government needs to pair the impulse to bring additional stakeholders to the table with expeditious ways to resolve disagreements. In the mid-20th century, no one could stop a bad project. Today, it’s too hard to get a good one going.
In the absence of centralized figures empowered to cut through objections and force bureaucracies to serve a common mission, billions of taxpayer dollars will inevitably sit fallow or go to waste. Legitimate environmental review processes, landmarking standards, and zoning regulations are too easily hijacked by those holding torches for the status quo or a competing investment. Congress and the Biden administration are right to address one of the most profound barriers to world-class infrastructure — a lack of resources. But it’s the bureaucracies and officials who will control those dollars at the federal, state, and local level who will ultimately chart the path forward.
Marc J. Dunkelman is a fellow at the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.