People who have read Brookings’ awful report saying San Jose is the second most transit-accessible city in the US and New York the thirteenth already know not to trust what Brookings says. Even at the level of collecting facts, it seems to get service frequency wrong, making sprawling suburbs with hourly bus service look like they have service every few minutes.
So it’s not surprising that senior Brookings fellow Robert Puentes’ article about infrastructure in the Wall Street Journal is full of misunderstandings and frankly amateurish claims about US infrastructure problems. Puentes opens with a standard claim that “we do a great job of building new roads” (no mention of the Big Dig, Bay Bridge Eastern Span replacement, or proposed Tappan Zee replacement, each substantially costlier than undersea tunnels in Europe) but smarter investments are needed. He proposes the following:
1. Boosting exports. Puentes complains that US border crossings are congested, and hints that more are needed, for example the proposal for more bridges between Michigan and Ontario. He mentions some interstate cooperation as a solution, but never says anything about international cooperation, which is the real problem.
The Ambassador Bridge carries 10,000 trucks and 4,000 cars per day; the Holland Tunnel, which has the same number of lanes, carries 90,000 vehicles per day. The problem with the bridge is the border crossing, not the infrastructure. Nowhere does Puentes say the US and Canada should build more border checkpoints or process people faster. If Michigan doubles the number of border control booths or halves the time it takes to process a vehicle, it’s equivalent to building another bridge, but at a vastly lower cost.
2. Getting greener. Puentes praises Obama for proposing to put one million electric cars on the road in 2015. Then he talks about charging stations and the need for national standards encouraging them. In reality, the US has 240 million cars on the road, so Obama’s proposal would, even assuming zero-emission electricity, cut car emissions by 0.4%.
On the subject of cars and transit, Puentes wisely mentions that the government funds roads more liberally, but instead of railing against highways to nowhere and high construction costs says “We need equal treatment of all possible transportation projects, so cities don’t have to give up on, say, transit systems that fit their needs and help us go green, just because they cost more than highways.” It’s not that there aren’t examples of severe waste; it’s that Puentes doesn’t seem to care.
3. Adding Innovations. This is a boilerplate blurb for electronic toll collection, bus tracking, and, of course, public-private partnerships. Individually the things proposed are not bad – they’re just the most important things. For mass transit, fare integration and tighter schedule adherence are more important, but were not invented here and involve messy fights with the bureaucrats Brookings represent.
The PPP part indicates what this is really about: kickbacks to technology companies, often defense contractors looking to diversify. Many US transit systems have a smartcard using vendor-locked proprietary technology; defense contractor Cubic is the top vendor. New York’s smartcard proposal is instead a kickback to credit card providers, which is slightly less bad because the standard is open but is still far behind best practices. The best practices do not involve PPPs – instead, agencies develop technologies in-house, or instead rely on open standards. Minimal collusion offers minimal opportunity for corruption.
4. Connecting Workers With Work. Here Puentes repeats his institution’s flawed study’s findings as if they’re universally recognized facts. He does not even say “According to a recent Brookings study” – people are supposed to know it like they know Pearl Harbor happened in 1941. Then, based on said study’s conclusions, he declares the problem is that the poor are disconnected from their workplaces and makes relevant suggestions.
Since the Brookings study got things wrong in the direction of too much transit accessibility, the suggestions are for the most part not bad. The problem is that he says nothing about the problems of connecting people to where they work. The biggest problem for metro area transit is that while downtowns are reasonably connected (e.g. downtown LA workers have a 50% transit mode share), secondary downtowns and suburban job centers are not.
The common theme of all the proposals is that they’re makework for the bureaucrats and consultants who are Brookings’ base. Adopting best industry practices is useless to Brookings fellows, because pointing out that Europe does it better also means that the consultants who should implement reform are European managers. In contrast, PPP means coming up with new standards and new ways of doing things; it’s attractive to government administrators as much as it is to the companies that get the contracts.
The interests of the riders are not the same as those of the service providers. That labor does not have the same interests as riders is clear, but management benefits from bloat just as much: if things run smoothly, managers can’t look like they’re continually saving the day. Thinktanks like Brookings represent certain interest groups, and Brookings’ interest group excludes transit users.