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.