Infrastructure and Democracy

Two stories, one recent and one older, have made me think about the undemocratic way the US builds infrastructure. The older story is California HSR’s cost overrun coming from scope creep; the biggest overruns were in the Bay Area, where power brokers from different agencies wanted separate territory at stations, leading to additional tunnels and viaducts. The newer one is Long Island’s reaction to the MTA’s developing proposals to add Metro-North service to Penn Station, sharing the East River Tunnels with the LIRR and Amtrak; the reaction is negative on misinformed grounds, but the misinformation often comes from official sources.

In both cases, there’s a democratic deficit in US local government that’s in play. Swiss infrastructure projects require a referendum, and involve detailed benefits announced to the public. In Lucern, a recent urban tunnel was sold to the public on the grounds that it would enable certain clockface frequencies toward the south and southeast, such as a train every 15 minutes to Hergiswil and an hourly express train to Engelberg; the full cost was included in the referendum. Even much larger projects, such as the Gotthard Base Tunnel, are funded by referendum. Nothing of that sort happens in the US, even when there are referendums on infrastructure.

I’ve begun to believe that California’s original sin with its HSR project is that it refused to do the same. Prop 1A was a referendum for what was billed as one third of the cost, $10 billion. In reality it was $9 billion and $1 billion in extra funds for connecting local transit; in year of expenditure dollars the estimated budget then was $43 billion, so barely a fifth of the project’s cost was voted on. The HSR Authority planned on getting the rest of the money from federal funding and private-sector funding. Prop 1A even required a 1:1 match from an external source, so confident the Authority was that it would get extra money.

In reality, at the time the proposition was approved to go to ballot, the financial crisis hadn’t happened yet, and there was no talk of a large fiscal stimulus. Although the stimulus bill gave California $3 billion, in 2008 the HSR Authority couldn’t know this source of money would be available, and yet it assumed it would get $17-19 billion in federal funding. Likewise, no private investor was identified back then, and promises of foreign funding have been inconclusive so far and again only come years after the referendum. Put another way, Californians voted without any information about where 79% of the budget for HSR would come from. The state is now scrambling for extra funding sources, such as cap-and-trade revenues. Since there is no real dividing line between on-budget and off-budget when 79% of the budget is undetermined, costs could rise without controls. An agency that had lined $43 billion in prior funding via referendum would be too embarrassed by any cost increase requiring it to ask for more money from any source; a large cost increase could make the difference between project and no project.

In the Long Island case, there was of course no referendum – East Side Access and Metro-North’s Penn Station Access were both decided by the commuter rail agencies and the state legislature. However, even subject to the legislative decisions, there has been very little transparency about what’s going on. The MTA has provided scant details about service planning for after East Side Access opens: total tph counts for each terminal, but nothing about off-peak frequencies, nothing about which LIRR lines would have service to which terminal, and nothing about the frequency of each individual LIRR line. A major change, the end of through-service from east of Jamaica to Flatbush Avenue, is not explicitly mentioned; one has to read between the lines to see that there’s no service planned to Flatbush Avenue, which is planned to be connected to Jamaica by shuttle service (and the shuttle service is still not going to offer urban rail frequencies or fare integration with buses and the subway).

In this climate, it’s easy for people to disbelieve that the agencies involved know what they’re doing, even when they are. Penn Station Access is unpopular among Long Island politicians, who view the East River Tunnels as their turf and do not want to share with Metro-North. The MTA and New Jersey Transit keep saying that Penn Station is at capacity without further explanation, and the MTA says it will add Metro-North trains to Penn; is it any wonder that state legislators see those two statements and, in the context of past cost overruns, oppose Penn Station Access?

When there is democracy – by which I mean not just periodic elections offering two parties to choose from, but a referendum process, transparency, and community consultations – people have an incentive to be informed. It’s possible to sway many people in one’s community and have a positive effect on local state services. Local politicians who are informed on the subject will be able to lead spending and planning efforts and can count on the support of informed voters. In contrast, when there is democratic deficit, being informed is far less useful, because decisions are made independently of what people think unless they are power brokers, or perhaps wealthy, power-brokering communities.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed as much when he visited the US two hundred years ago, when it was already far more democratic, for white men, than any European country: American farmers were more informed about politics than their European counterparts. Today, everyone in the first world has democracy and universal franchise, with a few exceptional countries that are worse-run than people give them credit for. But on the local level, some countries have done much more and get rewarded with a system of accountability to the voters, leading to better governance. The US is trading on an unreformed political system, in which the check on local officials’ power comes from neighboring fiefdoms rather than from the people.

The feudal character of local government in the US is leading to the usual exasperation with the system. But instead of turning toward democracy, transit supporters cheer as governments turn toward absolutism, increasing the power of the state at the expense of other stakeholders. California is reforming its environmental protection laws in response to abuse of the system by powerful communities; in reality, one of the state legislators involved in the effort recently left politics to work for Chevron. A reformer at Cornell recently proposed to improve transportation governance by “[putting] a bipartisan committee in a locked room.” Thomas Friedman cheers Chinese megaprojects as a way to achieve progress and sustainability; he says nothing about the more cost-effective projects done democratically in Europe, even though they involve some equally impressive edifices like the Alpine base tunnels. Throughout the transit activist community, including nearly every blogger and commenter but also the main activists on the ground, there’s a tendency to view any community opposition to a project as NIMBYism and to ask for changes that make it easier for the government to get its projects done, as in the Robert Moses era. Social democrats and neo-liberals are equally complicit in the march for not just centralization, which can be done with democratic checks, but also concentration of power in the hands of state officials.

Good infrastructure does not come from autocrats. Nothing comes from autocrats except more wealth and power for the autocrats, which may or may not involve infrastructure that is useful to the public. Undemocratic systems lead to a feedback loop in which the people have no incentive to be informed while the power brokers have no incentive to make sure anyone is informed, and this way it’s easy to spend $8 billion on a train station and approach tracks, without knowing or caring how many orders of magnitude this is more expensive than the average first-world rail tunnel. A good transit advocate has to advocate for more democracy, transparency, and simplicity in government operations, because decisions made behind closed doors are almost invariably made for the benefit of the elite that’s on the right side of those doors.


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  2. fmanin

    I think this comes from a lot of people’s experience in local democracy such as zoning variances. A lot of the time, a _private_ project is presented to the public, which then has chances to negotiate it down, but not really to suggest alternatives for the use of the space. People feel this lack of agency and turn into screaming children making unreasonable demands. This kind of sham democracy is worse than no democracy.

    Of course, it would be nice if we could give people tools that let them judge _public_ projects rationally against each other and decide how money should be allocated. I’m not sure how to get from here to there.

  3. orulz

    After puzzling over this for some time I reached more or less the same conclusion as you as to the problem, though you propose a different solution than I. I am somewhat weary of governance by referendum because then you get dysfunctional things like the California supermajority rule for raising taxes, or the Florida Save Our Homes act. Perhaps my distrust of direct governance is misplaced, though – I’ll have to think about it some more.

    But clearly you are right, the root of the problem with infrastructure in the US is the political system. The bitter rivalry between the parties and the way everything revolves around two-year election cycles, leads to a dearth of effective planning. Plans are made, and often are good, but are seldom followed because of the attention focused on getting re-elected and the inevitable swing from one party to another every few election cycles. The political nature of infrastructure also leads politicians to seek wasteful “signature” projects, whether to build a legacy for themselves or to have ribbon-cuttings to pose for to win popularity and get reelected.

    Japan seems to have taken the opposite route of Switzerland, by giving more power to central authorities, and yet they tend to build effective infrastructure. In Japan these agencies, though of course somewhat political, seem to be more technocratic in nature rather than autocratic, and tend to possess the trust of the public (at least moreso than in the US where distrust of transportation planning agencies is endemic.) Long-term plans tend to remain in place and be implemented incrementally, continuously, and in a generally logical order regardless of the shifting political winds. Perhaps the lack of an effective organized political party for most of Japan’s postwar history has a lot to do with it, but then again when the opposition, the DPJ, finally had power from 2009-2012, all the long term plans didn’t go out the window).

    It would be interesting to see what factors are in place that make effective planning possible in Japan. This is not to say that Japan doesn’t have political problems and pork doesn’t get built there, of course it does – and Japan’s government has a gigantic issue with domestic debt. But when they build, usually they build the right thing, build it well, usually without unnecessary extravagance, and usually for a reasonable cost – given the expense of labor, materials, and complexity of building in such an urbanized, mountainous country.

    Anyway, my idea for a Japan-style solution would be to fund and implement projects based on an apolitical set of objective criteria centered around cost effectiveness. The problem is, even if one party were to set up an effective and fair system like that here, it would be wiped out the second the other party takes power simply because it was set up by the other guy and that’s just how the increasingly winner-takes-all political system works here.

    • Beta Magellan

      Metropolitan planning organizations already do prioritize their projects in a manner that you suggest, though I’m sure the degree to which they align with actual cost-effectiveness shifts from metro area to metro area.

      In Chicago our long-range transportation plan was actually fairly decent for an American transportation plan (full disclosure: I had the opportunity to comment on it as more than just a random guy submitting his comment)—transit-heavy, minimal highway expansion, mostly focused on rebuilding/maintaining the existing system while filling in gaps that would improve how it would work as a whole (connecting Union and Ogilvie/Northwestern stations, for instance). One thing it didn’t include, though, was a rebuild of the congested Circle (expressway) Interchange—it determined that any improvements would essentially provide no benefits (any improvements in speed would be eaten up by increased use), be expensive to build and disrupt nearby homes and businesses. Nevertheless, the Circle Interchange is congested and used by a lot of people, ergo the state DOT, a lot of politicians want to do something about it, and it will result in big contracts to boot. Ergo, it will be expanded, despite being left off of the long-range transportation plan, while other critical projects remain un- or underfunded.

      What this example reveals is that:

      1. MPOs in this country have little power, no matter how good their work is (no surprise).
      2. Telling people something isn’t cost-effective won’t necessarily override their gut feelings, even if you show your work.
      3. Popular and elite consensus often align—although the Circle Interchange expansion certainly isn’t popular with people who bought condos on the southern edge of the West Loop, and might not even be popular in the City of Chicago as a whole, most Illinoisans are motorists and support this kind of thing, particularly when the funding for it is somewhat opaque (i. e. they won’t necessarily notice a Circle Interchange reconstruction and interest payments tax, even if one exists). Democracy is working here, it’s just working in a way that ends up wasting money and costing people in other ways (health, congestion) on stuff that people want.
      4. Even if we did have a nice, functional, democratic way of funding infrastructure, it would not necessarily clear the hurdle of America’s expressway-heavy infrastructure legacy and light transit use (even in relatively knowledgeable and transit-friendly places like Skyscraperpage you occasionally see a comment bemoaning the fact that it’s impossible to add more lanes to the Kennedy expressway).

      • orulz

        That’s the problem – plans are made, usually good plans, but they have no teeth. Politicians call the shots. For this to be effective, the planning agencies actually need to have power (as they do in Japan.) This is an example of something being less democratic, and from my perspective working better.

        I wonder if Alon considers Japan to be an example of the “few exceptional countries that are worse-run than people give them credit for,” and if so I’m curious as to why – their massive national debt perhaps?

        • Alon Levy

          That part you’re quoting is a slag against Singapore (great GDP numbers, not much in the way of local living standards) and increasingly also Hong Kong (“we built roads just because we can, let’s motorize our society to fill them”).

          Japan has its own opacity issues, like Tepco and the Fukushima disaster. But yes, it’s run a lot better than American feudalism; I don’t know how directly related it is, but it also has much higher local election voter turnouts than anywhere in the West (at least traditionally, I don’t know if it’s still the case), so for some reason people do feel like they have a stake in local governance.

        • Alon Levy

          Another issue in Japan I just realized: the LDP is an aristocracy, not an autocracy. There’s a party bureaucracy; the leaders aren’t as important, not when you sometimes go through a prime minister per 1-2 years. So the politics of personality that characterizes the PAP in Singapore or American mayoral races isn’t there as much. It’s parallel to how from the Depression to the 1980s, Mexico was much better-governed than the rest of Latin America, coming from term limits for presidents.

          • Andre Lot

            Term limits had been the mainstay of Latin American governments when they had been elected ones (not dictatorships). But, then, even certain dictatorships of past and present have had term limits. Some former single-party communist countries had term limits as well.

            I’m all in favor of them, but they are not a silver bullet for better governance.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Term limits are the darlings of parties that can’t produce candidates good enough to unseat the incumbent. They are also the darlings of the plutocracy because freshmen legislators are cheaper to buy. And they get termed out before they figure out how the plutocracy is manipulating things. It’s an affront to my freedom to vote for whoever I choose. Even if a candidate is able to mount a successful write-in campaign they can’t take office if they are termed-out.

          • Alon Levy

            In a democracy, yes. However:

            1. In an authoritarian state, term limits produce party bureaucracies rather than cults of personality, and this results in a better-run government. In mid-century Mexico, you didn’t really have a choice in the election: whoever the sitting President anointed as his successor was going to win, and when the opposition started to mount a serious challenge, the PRI stole the election. The same is true of mid-century Argentina, except that Argentina had a Peronist cult of personality and Mexico wasn’t.

            2. In a democracy that already has term limits, a head of government who wants to abolish term limits is very likely someone with no respect for democracy, such as Bloomberg or Chavez.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The Republicans in New York CIty, vestigial though they are, were all for term limits when Democrats were getting elected for Mayor. Not so much when Republicans were elected Mayor.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, Marquis Rudolph the First was even less of a rule-of-law-not-of-men person than Marquis Michael the First.

          • Adirondacker12800

            at least Mikey went through the motions of getting the law repealed and actually having an election. Herr Rudy was termed out, he just wanted to extend his term without an election.

          • Damien RS

            My impression was that Mexican presidents were quite strong, just limited in term. Also tending to appoint their successor, which recently made me think of an analogy to the Nervan Good Emperors of Rome, who adopted middle-aged generals or administrators as their heirs. If you’re going to have autocracy that seems the way to go, perhaps along with hereditary monarchs who reliably appoint viziers who do all the work.

          • Damien RS

            As for term limits, I think there’s a difference between executive limits, given the high chance of power getting concentrated, and legislative limits which just cripple the legislature’s influence and expertise. Mexico also applies “No reelection!” to preventing consecutive re-election for legislators, and the legislature turns over every election. No incentive to do a good job in office…

      • Alon Levy

        Actually, Skyscraperpage is one of the communities I’m talking about when I say transit advocates turn to absolutism. It’s a community of people who know a lot about transportation but come with their own biases about it, toward more building, especially of the spectacular kind. They form one interest group among many, and in a situation where people had a reason to learn about transportation issues, there would be other interest groups with their own biases and an equal amount of knowledge.

        The problem with MPOs, community boards, etc., is that they don’t really give people any stake in their local governance issues. Members are usually nominated by state, county, or municipal officials, rather than elected. When they are elected it’s a district system, which encourages parochialism and turns politics into a personality contest rather than consistent governing philosophies. In either case, decisions are opaque, and there’s no way for voters to have oversight over spending priorities, even when referendums happen (New Yorkers voted for Second Avenue Subway in the 1950s, but the money was raided to pay for repairs).

        • Beta Magellan

          It’s worth remembering many, if not the majority of, posters at Skyscraperpage are in the building trades, too.

          I hardly think the MPO model is perfect (and a lot of crap has come from MPOs), but in it’s one of the few places that does scoring and CBA, sometimes publishing methodology. And they are easily overruled—you might argue that such overrules mainly come from elites (politicians, particularly those aligned with the upper-and upper-middle class) but I think it’s naïve to think their sentiments are always divorced from the non-elite populations they represent. Americans, in general, support bad policy, like expanding a road whenever there’s congestion, largely because they’ve lived with bad policy and are comfortable with its results (see healthcare as well). Even if there were a flowering of citizen-based transportation plans in the absence of MPOs, I think they’d largely follow the same lines as American policy does now—highway expansion and rail to less-dense suburban areas.

  4. letsgola

    Interesting post. I would say that the history of ballot initiatives in California shows that the results are mixed. Sometimes you get the California Aqueduct (regardless of what people think about water schemes, there is no doubt that it has allowed the SJ Valley and SoCal to keep growing). Sometimes you get Prop 13. Like any democratic or representative process, ballot initiatives can get coopted by private interests. You can get the public to vote for bad ideas with misinformation, or for ideas that benefit individuals who get to vote but hurt society as a whole or people who don’t get to vote, e.g. the students whose school funding was cut because Prop 13 capped property taxes. In other words, more direct democracy is not a substitute for building competent government agencies. Yglesias has written about this.

    I think partly this has to do with the structure of local governance in the US. No agency in the US wields the power of, say, Transport for London. New York transit has to deal with three states, many counties, the city, different agencies within the states, counties, and cities, and so on.

    However, even when agencies are nominally merged, the pattern of “fiefdoms” still comes through. MassHighway, the MBTA, and the Turnpike Authority are all part of MassDOT now, but I don’t know how much that has changed. It’s true on the private side as well – I’ve had several ex-Penn Central employees describe the turf wars after the Penn and NY Central merger, and similar stories from the SP-UP merger. These fiefdoms have a long history that will be challenging to overcome.

    There’s also the matter of expectations. I tried (quickly but with no luck) to find data on people’s positive/negative views of their government, but I would guess that in Switzerland it is higher than in the US. People in the US have been conditioned to expect overruns and delays. People in the US have also been conditioned to think that they are getting hosed to benefit someone else, regardless of whether it is true or not. Drivers think they are getting hosed to support transit, suburbs think they are getting hosed to support cities, Long Islanders think they are getting hosed to benefit Connecticut and New Jersey, etc. It’s a self-reinforcing political pandering cycle. It is much easier to blame other districts for screwing you over than try to do a good job.

    I would agree with your conclusion that transit advocates need to argue for more democracy, transparency, and simplicity in government operations. Transparency and simplicity to improve the quality of transit, democracy because informing the public is the right thing to do. If it has knock-on effects in that more people become engaged and demand more transparency and simplicity, that’s all the better, but I wouldn’t count on it.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Metro New York has the MTA, NJTransit and CDOT off in a corner building highways and making sure the MTA keeps the New Haven line in decent if not good repair. Anything else, like the private bus companies or the county run bus systems are noise in the data. If monolithic bureaucracies were the solution New York already has a monolithic bureaucracy, the MTA. Works out real well doesn’t it? BTW, technically the MTA is part of NYSDOT. Not that NYSDOT ever interferes with what the MTA is up to.

      • Alon Levy

        The MTA isn’t really a unitary bureaucracy. The LIRR and Metro-North are their own fiefs; when the MTA wanted to merge the two agencies, both agencies rebelled and the MTA gave up. SEPTA, too, has a separate railroad culture, and David Gunn says that the strike was primarily not about wages but about the transit managers treating regional rail like regular transit.

        • Adirondacker12800

          and the transit managers wanting to pay the regional rail workers like regular transit workers. That’s a big chunk of the problem with the LIRR, They didn’t get wrung through Conrail

        • letsgola

          Exactly… where unitary bureaucracies have been nominally created in the US, they really don’t function that way. I don’t see how anyone could really say the MTA is a monolithic bureaucracy given the infighting between MNR and LIRR, the fact that MNR’s tracks in CT are owned by ConnDOT, and the existence of NJT because of arbitrary political boundaries. A real monolithic Greater NY agency would control all of its infrastructure, and not have three separate CR agencies.

  5. Gryphonisle

    Let’s not forget that people who do vote, as the Cal HSR vote indicates, often vote for things they don’t understand. A well informed voter is practically an oxymoron in the US. And it’s not new: In the late ’50s, when San Francisco was trying to get rid of all of the cable car lines, the ballot initiative labeled “Save The Cable Cars” was soundly passed, only for voters to realize they were saving only 2.5 cable car lines, reopening none of the closed lines; yet, if they’d only read the ballot initiative it clearly stated what the “new” system would look like, which is the one we have today, and the reason why the judge threw the Citizens complaint out of court. Likewise for Calif’ proposition 187, in the 1990s;, billed as the Civil Rights Initiative, despite the fact it was an extreme anti-undocumented alien bill, most of whose provisions would end up thrown out by the courts on constitutional grounds. It passed with a large majority because of its name, people expressing shock afterwards, when they finally learned what it was up to. “They can do that?” The same measure failed in Texas, later, because then Governor George W Bush forced a name change, to better reflect the bills true intent.

    So, while better informed voters are most certainly an asset; most voters are going to go to the poles uninformed and vote their heart over their mind. I’d urge more transparency on transit planners anyway, and urge for more realistic and complete budgets, but both aspects bring up the need for reform to the initiative system itself, to prevent such unrealistically funded programs from even making the ballot box: Every initiative should have it’s full cost, and spell out where all of the money will come from. I would even urge three versions of such projects: A, the Ideal: or all the bells and whistles; B The Pragmatic, the most practical yet complete version of the ideal; and C: The Hold Button: The bottom line costs of putting all or part of the project on hold in a budget melt down, and keeping it there until revenues allow for the project to resume. No ballot should allow any vote for a project with anything less than Option B funding levels.

  6. Nathanael

    Thanks for this post. I’ve come to feel that:
    (1) all our problems currently are, at their root, political;
    (2) we have dysfunctional political institutions, and better institutions would make it easier to solve these political problems.

    Party-proportional representation helps a *lot* in getting better governments quicker. When the 30% of the population who wants to vote Green can actually vote Green and have 30% of the Parliament be Green Party members, it (a) gives alternate views a voice even if the two “top” parties agree, and more critically (b) makes it easier for people to dump a party which isn’t performing as advertised.

    People don’t pay attention to lots of things — there’s a limited attention span. Thererfore I believe there should be very few separate offices to vote on, so that people will actually pay attention to the few that they are voting on.

    I also have come to disapprove of bicameralism of the sort the US has, because they seem to be used to deflect blame: those of us who have studied the matter know that the Republican Party is run by people whose program would destroy the country, but since they are repeatedly blocked from passing their agenda, it’s not obvious to the average people what an awful thing they voted for.

    In order keep any sort of decent government, you basically need a party-proportional parliamentary system as far as I can tell. Anything else either (1) degenerates into elected dictatorship (and eventually outright dictatorship), or (2) degenerates into the infamous two-party system, or (3) is gerrymandered until it stops working.

    • Andre Lot

      Once again, effective or ineffective government can happen with the system you propose.

      Proportional representational has its own set of problems and shortcomings, like single-issue parties or parties that thrive on bringing any government down (just look at the post-WW2 electoral-administrative history of Italy for a starter).

      Proportional representation also reduces local accountability and opens the door for extreme parties or movements that have no way of ever winning a majority election, yet empowers them to extract concessions to support some broader coalition. In some countries, you end up with a handful of single-issue extreme parties that don’t care about anything else, and then they can force their agenda which wouldn’t be otherwise palatable to any large segment of the population. Example: xenophobic parties in Austria and Netherlands that capture some discontent vote channeling frustrations towards immigrants or things perceived as “foreign” (including EU), with no consistent economic or development agenda, and willing to put their MPs behind any major coalition that agrees to their anti-immigration stance.

      I’m not saying proportional representation is bad, just that it is not perfect. If it existed in US at the state level of election for the House of Representatives (hard to think of some “national assembly” in US with only a national pool of voters), you would see the Green party get some votes, but you’d also see hard-line Tea Parties getting elected, then maybe some nativist parties, and – worrisome – ehtnic-based parties.

      • Nathanael

        “Proportional representational has its own set of problems and shortcomings, like single-issue parties or parties that thrive on bringing any government down ”

        Wrong…. Those are problems in our system too. Those are not problems unique to proportional representation. Bicameralism and single-member districts have those problems too.

        And we have a party which thrives on bringing any government down, RIGHT NOW. It’s called the Republican Party.

          • Nathanael

            Sure doesn’t seem like the US system in practice.

            I can’t find any explicit documentation as to how the Swiss legislation system works, but it appears that it’s impossible for one chamber to blockade the other. There’s a provision in the Constitution stating that there will be a procedure for making sure that decisions get made (on various topics including the budget) in the event that the two chambers disagree.

            Which makes it nothing like the US Senate in practice.

            Germany is nominally bicameral too. So is France. So is the UK. So is Australia. In every case, there’s something which amounts to a tiebreaker rule. We haven’t got one.

          • Nathanael

            I’d love to have a Swiss person comment, but reading the text of the Swiss constitution, it looks like the two chambers vote as a single body when it comes down to brass tacks.

          • Alon Levy

            Max can confirm this, but my recollection from reading Patterns of Democracy is that Switzerland has strong bicameralism, like the US and Italy and unlike (say) the UK and Canada, and Germany is an intermediate case.

          • Nathanael

            Hah. Yep. If there’s an intractable conflict between the two houses on most matters, they meet together, with each member getting one vote. That’s a tiebreaker method which eliminates the blockade effect of bicameralism.

  7. Andre Lot

    I think there is some misconception about how efficient the Swiss planning system would be and how it actually operates.

    For a starter, before putting up all these projects, in early 1990s (1992 I think) they voted to centralize (and not the opposite) the management and planning of federal routes (both rail and highway links).

    Then, they have to get referendum approval for new construction plans, which usually means having to put some inefficient projects to attract voters from the whole country (since referendum on national network plans are national, not cantonal). There must be “something for everyone” leading to design compromises.

    An easy example of the absurdity of some solutions: two non-optimal non-high-speed base tunnels under the Alps (Lötschberg and Gotthard). Ideally, there should be one high-speed route linking Italy with north-of-Alps Swtizerland (given the major reason to build the tunnels was another referendum mandating a transfer of transalpine cargo movements to rail from highways).

    However, there is no way that they could get a referendum approval for a single high-speed link, which would leave the other route feeling the pain for decades. The problem is: the Italians were willing to build some “high-speed to Switzerland” link, if the Swiss built their part, but not to. The net result: two half-done jobs (the Bern-Domodossola and the Zug-Lugano routes when the Gotthard opens), no major improvements on the Italian side, and Switzerland becoming more and more the “speed bump” or rail travel in Europe. So the whole process is not an example of efficiency and state-of-the-art engineering macroplanning either, although it has its merits.

    Now something that many European countries do right it to mandate that big infrastructure projects be either completely funded from start of have a clear set of phases whose progressive completion make them useful. Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland are good examples of that: you cannot start some major rail project without a clear funding scheme. The Dutch have a long list of approved and prioritized works, but they only start building when they have certainty of being able to complete a useful phase. That goes from new university campus to rail and road links to housing projects – there are very few “abandoned works” or “useless stubs” of infrastructure. The Austrians have something like that as well, you don’t ever start digging a road tunnel if you don’t have money to build the highway approach link.

    Italy and Germany are bad examples at that, though. You can start unfunded (but approved) projects on both countries and “hope for the best”. Then, if money dries out and new sources are not found, you end up with things like highway junctions unfinished, tunnels in the middle of nowhere, or subway lines without money for signaling and thus operating with a one-train shuttle (the U55 in Berlin…)

    • Max Wyss

      One has to be aware that the Lötschberg and Gotthard base tunnels were initially “sold” as part of the measures to get transit freight off the highways. Having the tunnels designed for 250 km/h was more a side-effect. In fact, the planned 250 km/h running of the fast trains through the Gotthard Base tunnel causes a reduction of the capacity of the tunnel, as one high speed train takes 2 slots for freight. There were other issues with the referendum for the two tunnels (wrong numbers concerning the financing etc.). This has now been rectified, and there were serious cost overruns (due to new increased safety requirements; the feared geology issues did not materialize as badly as anticipated, on the other hand).

      It does not mean in Switerland that the money is there right away, but the financing scheme must be established when a large project comes to the referendum.

      One big advantage of the Swiss system is that there is no way a single person can scrap a big infrastructure proect, once it has been approved.

      • Andre Lot

        That is also difficult in countries where big projects must get judicial or quasi-judicial pre-clearance like France, Netherlands, Sweden and Germany: as some sort of council or administrative court must approve the projects before they proceed, there is less discretion for single-handling cancelling of projects. A law is required to cancel a project. This also has a collateral effect of protracting litigation before works start but drastically reducing opportunities for last-ditch attempts, as seen in cases like HSR Bologna-Firenze, Stuttgart 21, the new A20 highway in Germany etc.

  8. Max Wyss

    As Swiss infrastructure projects, such as the mentioned tunnel in Luzern, are financed from various pot (federal, cantonal and municipal funds), here may be referendums. But the referendums rarely cover the whole amount of the project. At least in the case of Luzern, I can not remember having voted in a federal referendum. But there were referendums in the Canton of Luzern, and I think also in the city of Luzern. And this project was not just for providing the capacity to run something like 8 or o tph per direction. It was also to abolish several grade crossings (where the money came from a general federal “abolishing grade crossings” pot, and not even the parliament could vote about the use of the money for the tunnel (as it approved the general financing).

    There is also a Swiss feature that the parliament (no matter on which level) can decide whether to have a referendum for some projects. In most cases, they do that because they know that otherwise, there will be a group/party which will collect enough signatures for forcing a referendum, which would cause serious delays to th eproject.

    In general, a direct democracy requires well educated and informed citizens; to me, it is the most demanding kind of government. This system also prevents to some extent that polit-clowns get to big power.

  9. Stephen

    There are plenty of countries that do infrastructure really well – Spain, France! – that don’t have Swiss-style referenda on transit. I don’t think the direct democracy is a cause of the consensus for transit, so much as a particularly Swiss result of it.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, but. On metrics of consensus governance like the party system, France and Spain are a lot more consensual than the US. As an example, both parties presented their ideas for Arc Express, disagreeing on issues of implementation, and both announced clear plans including routing options. The unitary French government also works to the benefit of more democracy insofar as there’s no need to deal with dysfunctional local US governments. Even apart from that, SNCF/RFF does a lot more outreach when planning LGVs than the California HSR Authority ever did, and not only bribes farmers with above-market price purchases but also helps them rationalize their plots using land swap deals.

      • Max Wyss

        Could it be that the USAn parties are too similar to allow for a concesus system? From afar, and compared to Euroepean party programs, they are “far right wing” and “right wing”. So, they have to fight much more to distinguish themselves from the others. Now, that together with the “kill the government” attitude, gets the whole dysfunktionality. There is no sense of responsibiltiy… hmm thinking about it; it is interesting that the English language does not have an equivalent to the German “der Staat”, or the french “L’état”. That means that this concept of “der Staat” does not exist in English speaking countries… “der Staat” in the sense of the community; “us” and not in the snse of “government”, “they”.

        The above may sound a bit confusing, but that’s kind of the impression I get from watching the USAn politics form afar.

        Back to the concnsus system; if the parties are more different, and especially if there is no way that one single party can get an absolute majoirty in the legislation, finding a concensus is an absolute necessity. Now, for Switzerland, which is considered to be a concensus democracy, the concensus is the guarantee of stability. There are no revolutions, but evolutions, And another effect in of the concenus democracy is that a wide range of opiniions is involved to find a compromise which is then supported by the big majority.

        As it has been said, on federal level, there are two chambers, the Nationalrat (equivalent to the US House of Representatives) and the Ständerat (equivalent to the US Senate). As it also has been said, that for certain actions (election of the Bundesrat (the executive) and federal judges, for example), they act as one. The procedure is set, if there is a disagreement, and depending on the kind of the matter, if the disagreement can not be sorted out, it is either the version of the Nationalrat which counts, or the whole thing gets discarded. The main legislative work is not done during the sessions, but in the committees which prepare things. The members of the committees are chosen by the fractions, and the number of seats per fraction is set (this again makes sure that the concensus is assured)

        • Alon Levy

          The parties in the US are fairly similar, but it’s a result rather than a cause of two-party majoritarianism. The Democrats are basically a social democratic party that’s toned down everything that’s either socialist or democratic in order to get a majority. The system in the Anglosphere is such that a party that persistently gets 53% of the vote has nearly unlimited power while a party that persistently gets a few percentage points less than the first party has almost no power. This creates competition for a narrow segment of swing voters; there’s a party base that can cause trouble in the primaries, which has had a major radicalizing effect on the Republicans, but even that is only sustainable insofar as the party can win majorities occasionally. The Swiss SP, the German SDP, and the Dutch PvdA have a lot of parties they can lose votes to or gain votes from, in all directions, but the Democrats can only lose votes to or gain them from the Republicans, and this leads to dramatically different policies. It of course also goes in the other direction: even though Romney’s loss was mainly about economic policy and the pace of the recovery from the recession, the Republicans responded by caving on immigration reform, which the SVP and PVV would not do.

          • Adirondacker12800

            So how come the opinion pages are still filled with essays on how the Republicans are against immigration reform? And it’s all smoke and mirrors. Republicans love immigrants. They work hard for low wages, they don’t want to unionize, if they do get uppity all you have to do is call the INS and they are gone to be replaced with another batch of immigrants who work hard for low wages and don’t want to unionize. It’s the immigration reform t is more or less the immigration reform of the the 80s which the Republicans resisted and then didn’t fund which gives the immigration problems of today needing immigration reform. Wash rinse repeat.

          • Nathanael

            The underlying theme in recent years has been that the Republicans are the pro-slavery party. This may sound over the top, but if you’ve been following it it’s pretty clear. They want a bunch of workers who have no rights and can be abused, and everything the national Republican party has done has been directed to that end.

            Due to Duverger’s Law and the two-party system, the Democratic Party has ended up getting the votes of nearly everyone who actually supports the concept of democracy, across the spectrum — at least among those who pay attention. (The Republican Party gets an awful lot of votes from people who have simply been deceived — we know this from polling which shows that Republican voters don’t even know what their candidates are doing.) It’s a disturbing political situation. I can’t find any modern analogues, though there may have been some in South America.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The Republican Party gets an awful lot of votes from people who have simply been deceived — we know this from polling which shows that Republican voters don’t even know what their candidates are doing.

            There are people in the world who are sycophants. There’s another group of people who want to be led, they don’t really care much about the philosophy, they just care that the powerful people are giving them the dogma to follow. There’s some overlap. Clinton’s indiscretions were cause for the whole world to stop and instigate the impeachment process. Senator Craig gets caught doing the same thing in the Minneapolis airport – after being recorded on CNN saying that what Mr. Clinton did was “Naughty naughty naughty” and stays in office. Eliot Spitzer has his fourth amendment rights violated ( when his bank reports transactions below the reportable threshold to the government, setting off an investigation ) and has to resign. Senator VItter does the same thing with some kinky bits thrown in for good measure and gets re-elected.
            … you can’t deceive people who will swallow the agitprop and mindlessly repeat it…. they aren’t examining it for veracity. If they were in the USSR in 1950 they would be celebrating the completion of the last five year plan. If they were in China in 1960 they would be sending people off to be reeducated. …. if it was Germany in 1948 they would tell you they were just following orders and they didn’t know about what was going on over in the relocations camps…. In 2013 they are Teapartiers.
            … Barney Frank was asked “what was the worst thing that happened during your time in Congress” or something like that. His answer was “Irangate”. Oliver North was just following orders. Oliver North is celebrated by TeaParty types…

          • Nathanael

            “There are people in the world who are sycophants. There’s another group of people who want to be led, they don’t really care much about the philosophy, they just care that the powerful people are giving them the dogma to follow. There’s some overlap. ”

            These are the people I would describe as “not supporting the concept of democracy”. (Some of them, such as those in minority ethnic groups, vote for Obama, because the Republicans are a little too obviously hostile to them personally.) They are certainly a big part of what’s going on. These are people who don’t *care* what the facts are.

            But there’s another group of Republican voters who simply don’t know what’s going on. When polled, they simply don’t have any of the facts right — they vote for Republicans because they have the policies of Democrats and Republicans completely swapped in their heads — and if somehow an actual fact gets into their head they will often quit the Republican Party. These are the group which needs to be targeted in order to dismantle the Republican Party. (The sycophants and followers will follow a winner when we have one.)

          • Adirondacker12800

            But there’s another group of Republican voters who simply don’t know what’s going on. When polled, they simply don’t have any of the facts right — they vote for Republicans because they have the policies of Democrats and Republicans completely swapped in their heads — and if somehow an actual fact gets into their head they will often quit the Republican Party.

            That’s a very small group. The people who show up at Tea Party rallies with “Keep the government out of my Medicare” don’t care about facts, They’ve decided that Republicans are willing to give them dogma that they don’t have to think about and follow Republicans. And then make fun of the Democrats because they base some of their policies and actions on the observed universe. The 6,000 yearers for instance. The Catholic 6,000-yearers, whose dogma says the Pope is infallible, and use that to support banning gay marriage and conveniently ignore that the Pope says evolution is a reasonable explanation for the observed and that evolution doesn’t conflict with the allegories in the Old Testament. They are in search of being controlled. Plop them down in US in 2013 they are ardent Tea Partiers. Plop them down in Moscow in 1940 and they are ardent Stalinists. Plop them down in Beijing in 1960 they are ardent Maoists.

          • Damien RS

            “And it’s all smoke and mirrors. Republicans love immigrants.”

            Big business Republicans love immigrants, nativist Republicans hate them, neither is big on speeding their slide into citizenship (big business probably likes guest worker programs.) Krugman noted liberals would tend to be conflicted personally about immigration (help our own poor vs. help the global poor) while the GOP is more divided between different factions.

          • Alon Levy

            Krugman thinks all liberals are like him. Plenty of people on the liberal side are immigrants or have family members who aren’t citizens and really don’t appreciate the “we can’t make this offer global” rhetoric he uses. In contrast, there are also plenty of unions that are openly against letting more immigrants in, even in white-collar industries, on general principle. In reality, both parties have factions on both sides, but the Democrats tilt more pro-immigration and the Republicans more anti-. The main difference, I think, is that there’s a bigger elite-base disconnect on the Republican side (big business loves immigrants) than on the Democratic side.

  10. Tsuyoshi

    I have to say I’m becoming more optimistic.

    The political system in the US has its problems, but I have a hard time seeing the biggest problem as having too little democracy (or too much). When I think of my time living in Japan, the transportation system there was better in most respects, but democracy had little to do with it. The basic decision-making apparatus, the bureaucracy, was in place in Japan long before seriously democratic institutions even existed there, and while Japanese bureaucrats are technically accountable to elected politicians, in practice it’s really the other way around. I guess I would say the ends (the policy) do not necessarily justify the means (the policy-making process).

    I think the problem in the US is more that an “everyone should be able to drive everywhere” consensus took hold, and has only recently begun to loosen its grip on everyone’s way of imagining transportation, from bureaucrats to politicians to voters. You have an argument here: the actual choices, illuminating the spatial and resource constraints we’re operating under, have not been properly presented. An underlying assumption has been we have unlimited cheap land for parking lots and roads, and unlimited cheap gasoline for driving any distance. Trains and buses are sort of an afterthought added onto the basic paradigm. These assumptions make a certain kind of sense in a country that has long been one of the world’s largest oil producers, and is one of the largest by land area. But this consensus is breaking down, because we don’t have enough oil for everyone to drive everywhere, and urban geometric constraints are coming into play, so not everyone wants to drive everywhere anymore.

    Now, if we specifically take the California High Speed Rail project as an example, what happened? Whoever came up with the unrealistically low cost no doubt believed that voters would not support the project at its real cost, because voters don’t (yet) believe that high speed rail is worth the cost. So they lowballed it and got something passed.

    Imagine if they were building the California portion of I5 today. It would probably cost more than $200 billion, but a huge majority wouldn’t hesitate to vote for it. The only thing most people would argue over is the route, not the cost.

    The difference is merely that rail doesn’t have the popular support that roads have. But this is changing. 20 years ago, high speed rail was nowhere on anyone’s agenda in California, even though it would have been just as good an idea then as now. Anyway, now they’ve passed an under-budgeted project. Some day they will come up with all the money they need.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t think Americans are that unwilling to support transit or that willing to support roads. For example, there are people who are rehabilitating the Big Dig in retrospect – typically people who don’t care much about costs (Krugman) or think people have an inalienable right to wide roads (O’Toole) – but the name of the project still has a bad connotation. The proponents of the comparable Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel project in Seattle had to come up with reasons why their tunnel wouldn’t turn out to be as big a disaster as Boston’s.

      The perception of costs is mainly relative: relative to recent costs in the same country or region, and relative to budget. US governments and voters have approved rail lines with far higher cost per unit of service provided than comparable projects in Europe and Japan. Tokyo Metro is balking at spending $500 million per km on future lines; in San Francisco, Chinatown activists demanded the Central Subway no matter what, and in New York Second Avenue Subway is popular. Taxes for commuter rail lines and suburban light rail lines that cost more $50,000 per rider have passed ballot measures in California with the required two-thirds majority, or narrowly failed to achieve it while still commanding a solid majority. If CAHSR had asked for $5 billion instead of $10 billion, it would’ve gotten marginally more votes, and if it had asked for $30 billion it would’ve gotten marginally fewer, but voters don’t respond to absolute costs very sensitively.

  11. Jeffery Rogerson

    Modern democracy enables corruption since there is no real accountability. Assad the autocrat can’t run from what he’s done, In all likelihood he will get captured by the rebels and have his corpse desecrated. The bush administration and particularly Cheney profited spectacularly off the war on terrorism. Cheney’s Halliburton connection never took a hit. In the end they made out like bandits and the taxpayer held the bag. Trillions of dollars of corrupt spending can be excused with “well that’s just a blame bush excuse”. Even the toxic legacy associated with their administration is being evaporated with time. It might even be viable for Jeb Bush to run for 2016.

  12. Pingback: Why is it so expensive to build a bridge in America? The answer: Our greedy and undemocratic political culture | Bamboo Innovator
  13. Pingback: Informed Voting and the Democratic Deficit | Pedestrian Observations

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