Infrastructure investment is about safety and mobility, not construction jobs

The Columbia River Crossing proposal, in Portland, Oregon.

The Columbia River Crossing proposal, in Portland, Oregon.

Any time someone makes the case for new infrastructure investment you can count on two things: 1) use of the word "crumbling," and 2) an enthusiastic remark about the number of construction jobs created. Jobs are always important, but in the case of investment in roads, rails, bridges, sidewalks, etc., there are few things less relevant to a project's value. We build and maintain our transportation infrastructure to provide for the movement of people* and goods and to ensure the safety of the users of that infrastructure. These are the primary measures by which we should judge the virtue of such investments; job creation doesn't even belong on the list.

Just as an example, take the proposal for the Columbia River Crossing bridge between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon. This controversial project would cost at least $3.1 billion (and as much as $10bn) and would provide an average of 1,900 construction jobs per year while being built. Even if costs came in at the low-ball figure of $3.1 billion, that works out to more than $1.6 million per new job, and those are jobs that would only last a few years at most. If the goal is cost-effective job creation then this proposal fails spectacularly.

The obvious point here is that the purpose is not cost-effective job creation. Rather, the value of the bridge itself is what will make this pencil out as a good investment, or not. The cost of the bridge must be weighed against its ability to improve mobility (for both economic and social purposes) and/or increase safety; those measurements, along with the much more speculative and therefore secondary considerations of "added value" or " private investment potential," are the only things that can yield a good return on investment for a product of this nature, or any transportation project for that matter.

The value of 1,900 jobs--or even 10,000--is insignificant relative to the cost of construction, and if keeping those costs low is one of the goals of the project (as it should be), fiscal prudence may work at cross-purposes to maximum employment. And that's okay. Construction jobs may be a nice bonus, but they're only worthy of consideration and celebration after the value of the project itself has been evaluated and maximized. If cost-effective job creation was the goal, we'd be better off paying people $50,000 a year to dig and refill holes all day or pick up garbage off the side of the road.

*The people in question may vary significantly from neighborhood to neighborhood and region to region--this will be dependent on the values of those communities. Some will prioritize the movement of cars and trucks while others will prioritize transit, walking, and/or bicycling. Among these sets of priorities there will certainly be differences in return on investment that should be evaluated critically, but the point is that mobility and safety still must be the primary considerations regardless of who the users of that new or improved infrastructure might be.

Parking-free apartment buildings aren't enough

In Portland some developers have recently started constructing apartment buildings without parking (a practice that is illegal in most cities), angering some neighbors who complain that the tenants still own cars, and that they just park them on the street instead of in privately owned spaces. And they're right. According to an article in the Oregonian:

[The city] found that 73 percent of 116 apartment households surveyed have cars, and two-thirds park on the street. Only 36 percent use a car for a daily commute, meaning the rest store their cars on the street for much of the week.

Frankly, this is pretty damning evidence that parking-free apartment units don't actually discourage car use. Not enough, and not by themselves, at least. Of course, only 73% of households owning a car is far below the average rate of car ownership in most cities, but it's still the majority of the tenants. What I found most significant here was the fact that only 36% use their cars for commuting--half of the households that own a car. The implication, of course, is that with the right incentives many of the people who don't commute with their vehicles could be encouraged to get rid of them. In the age of ZipCar and walkable cities, owning a car in this type of environment is more a matter of inertia than genuine need.

What might those incentives look like? One option might be for property managers to offer access to car-sharing, as is being done in a few places throughout the country. This might also be something cities themselves, or a non-profit of some kind, could administrate. For example, in exchange for donating your car you might get a five-year membership to a car sharing service with up to 20 hours of use a month. The value of getting people out of their cars is so high for cities--less congestion, pollution, and carnage, and considerably more money spent locally--that subsidizing some of the cost of car sharing might even be worthwhile.

Another obvious incentive is appropriately pricing our existing public parking spaces. In my old neighborhood of Capitol Hill, and many of the busier areas of the city, a parking permit is required to park on residential streets during the day, and costs $65 every two years. On commercial streets we're currently asking drivers to pay up to $4 per hour to park, but our residents aren't even paying $4 a month! And as far as I can tell there doesn't even seem to be a limit to how many you can purchase beyond, presumably, the number of cars you own. We set prices for commercial parking to ensure that those willing to pay can always find a space, but don't adhere to this philosophy when it comes to residential parking.

The same residents paying effectively nothing (usually actually nothing, for most neighborhoods), are demanding that developers--and hence the residents of those new developments--foot the bill of $10-20k (and upwards of $50k in some places) per parking space, usually underground. In other words, only existing residents get free parking, and everyone else has to pay the full cost. Even those who don't drive end up paying, in the form of taxes used to build and maintain the public roads being used for car storage. At a time when we recognize that reduced car use is good for cities and good for people, why are non-drivers subsidizing the cost of vehicle storage, and single-car households subsidizing multi-vehicle households?

A drastic increase in the cost of parking permits would raise considerable revenue, but I'd be perfectly content if it was dedicated to nothing but road maintenance. The real goal is a resolution of the Tragedy of the Commons, wherein un-priced public goods (in this case parking spaces) leads to vast overuse, harming everyone in the process. Revenue is simply beside the point. Even if a change in parking permit prices was offset by a slight decrease in, say, local sales taxes, making it completely revenue neutral, it would be a huge boon to the awful parking situation in the city, and to our economy.

The point of all this is that it would also discourage people in the densest, transit-oriented parts of the city from owning cars that they only use for occasional trips. For current residents who own a car and don't want that purchase's value completely destroyed by the increased cost of parking, the trade-in for a ZipCar-like subscription could help mitigate that loss. This, or another creative means of positively incentivizing a switch to a car-free or car-lite lifestyle, would be a valuable and perhaps necessary complement to increasing long-term parking costs. 

Even if all the new developments in the city provided enough parking for their residents, there's a critical point at which our roads simply can't handle any more traffic. We need to pair strategies for reduced parking in new apartment buildings with strategies to reduce car ownership and, especially, reduce the need for it. Doing just one or another won't be enough.