How America’s anti-urban bias distorts infrastructure spending

portsmouth bypass construction

Crews prepare embankments for the Portsmouth Bypass project (courtesy of Midwest Energy News).

The relative struggle for power between urban and rural areas is a defining feature of the American political system, one that dates back to the founding of the country. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, the two dominant political theories were the urban republicanism of Alexander Hamilton and the agrarian democracy of Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton’s ideas and biography are en vogue again, but the Jeffersonian push for agrarian power was enshrined in the Constitution. During the Constitutional Convention, small states successfully imposed the Connecticut Compromise, which created a bicameral legislature that included an upper house where every state would have equal standing. Thanks to this compromise, Wyoming – a state with 586,000 people – has the same power in the Senate as California – a state with five cities larger than 500,000 people.

Legislative proportionment and Baker v. Carr

Although rural areas unquestionably have disproportionate power on the federal level, it’s even starker at the state level. For a variety of reasons, rural voters tend to hold sway in state legislatures. One driver behind this outcome is gerrymandering, as typically Republican-dominated statehouses can draw districts in such a way as to enhance the relative power of rural and suburban residents.

The situation was actually worse prior to 1962. In that year, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Baker v. Carr, ruling that states need to continually update their legislative districts based on decadal Census data. This ruling effectively enshrined the principle of “one person, one vote,” which helped to somewhat level the playing field between rural and urban voters. But the situation has not been remedied. As I’ve said before, life is still difficult for blue cities located in red states.

Anti-urban bias in infrastructure spending

Recently I came across a great quote on this issue:

Ohio has practiced a rural and suburban philosophy that ignores big central city problems because those who run the state win their positions by soliciting the solid backing of farmers and small town residents.

I think this sentence encapsulates the current relationship between Cleveland and the State of Ohio quite well. Except it’s not a contemporary quote. This is actually from a speech (start at 17:00 mark) that former Mayor Carl Stokes delivered at the City Club of Cleveland on July 24, 1970.

Stokes spoke at a time when the State of Ohio showed no inclination to support the City of Cleveland. One year before the Cuyahoga River infamously caught on fire (for the 13th time) in June 1969, Cleveland residents passed a $100 million bond issue to upgrade the city’s water and wastewater infrastructure. The bond issue was necessary, because – six years after Baker – the State of Ohio refused to finance the improvements.

This imbalance remains today. Ohio actually spends more state money on its rural transit program than its urban program, despite the fact that 78% of Ohioans live in urban areas.

ohio transit funding 2000-2014

Transit funding, by program, from the Ohio Department of Transportation from 2000-2014 (courtesy of ODOT).

The bias towards rural areas also remains when examining spending on social issues at the state level. How many red states refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, for instance? Here in Ohio, while Governor John Kasich loved to brag on the campaign trail how he did expand Medicaid, he never seemed to mention how he only expanded food stamp allocations for rural areas, not cities.

But it’s possible to alter these types of social spending decisions in the short term. Governors and legislatures can pull the policy levers to increase welfare or education financing much more readily than they can build a new transit line in cities.

So what is it about infrastructure that makes it harder to influence, over the short-term, than social spending? What accounts for this inertia?

The ‘persistence of highways’

In a recent working paper (PDF), Stanford political science professor Clayton Nall and PhD candidates Simon Ejdemyr and Zachary O’Keeffe examine this issue. The study examines how the anti-urban bias in legislative apportionment affected the distribution of public goods before Baker. It also questions to what extent the case remedied this issue. As a proxy for public goods, the study considers the provision of federal-aid highway funding.

The authors identify two key mechanisms that explain the “persistence of highways” and that make highway spending less responsive to political change than social spending.

First, infrastructure clearly carries a sense of permanence. While the food that SNAP benefits help families buy may be gone a day later, a new bridge or highway will be fixed in steel and concrete for decades. Politicians are suckers for groundbreakings and ribbon cutting ceremonies.

Once these structures are built, there is typically tremendous pressure to maintain them. This is true even if the road or bridge outlives its useful life or if the cost of maintaining it outweighs the benefits. Like everyone else, lawmakers are subject to the sunk cost fallacy, which leads us to falsely believe that we need to keep investing time and money into projects or tasks, simply so that we don’t lose the time and money we have already spent.

Secondly, building infrastrastructure creates policy feedback. In other words, the development of the federal highway system gave rise to new interest groups that benefited from their construction. Construction and engineering firms directly benefited by winning state and federal contracts.

New infrastructure also creates what the authors call spatial policy feedback. New highways alter development patterns, facilitating the growth of suburban and exurban areas. In turn, these new suburban populations form powerful interest groups. Their support for and dependence on these highways becomes a self-perpetuating political force.

The unique persistence of highways is an important issue, as the framework for the federal-aid highway system was laid before Baker and was, thus, inherently anti-urban. In the Federal Highway Act of 1944, Congress explicitly barred the use of federal funds to build roads in communities with more than 2,500 residents.

While Congress altered its funding formula in 1956, it allowed rural-dominated state legislatures to influence the allocation of highway funding for decades. According to the authors, “state legislative malapportionment would have compounded already biased federal policies that limited states’ freedom of action to develop their urban areas, while promoting the biases within state legislatures.”

So, did the Baker ruling make a difference?

To examine how anti-urban bias within the political system may have affected the allocation of highway spending, the authors developed two models.

First, they compare each county’s portion of total highway mileage to its share of the state’s population. They then account for each county’s representation within the state legislature using the Relative Representation Index (RRI); a county with more political representation than its population should justify will have a score above 1, and vice versa.

To study the impact of the Baker ruling, they compare results from 1934-1960 to those from 1970-present. Per their results,

We find that legislative representation had approximately the same effect on a county’s share of state highway construction, regardless of region and urbanism. Second, and more importantly, we find that pre-Baker malapportionment had a persistently significant effect on highway-mileage bias in the decades after Baker. We find that representation mattered, but that it was the timing of the representation—prior to the construction of most of the American highway network—that dictated the distribution of highway infrastructure for decades to come.

According to this model, from 1934-1960, a one standard deviation increase in a county’s RRI score increased its share of highway-mileage spending by 0.3 standard deviations. While this number has been halved since the Baker ruling, the effect remains.

Second, the researchers compared the relative impact of Baker on both highway and social spending from 1972-20002; to measure the latter, they used state spending on public welfare and education. In this model, counties with higher RRI scores continued to see higher levels of state highway funding after Baker, even as they received less funding for welfare and education.

The implications of this study are significant. We live in an era of budget cuts and austerity. But, in a lot of ways, this crisis is political. The Ohio legislature could not be bothered to allocate even $1 million more for public transit, even as the largest transit system in state, GCRTA, muddles through a $7 million budget deficit.

Yet, while Cleveland residents brace themselves for fare increases and service cuts, Ohio has no qualms about spending $1.2 billion on the Portsmouth Bypass, which serves no purpose other than to let drivers avoid a few traffic lights.

As Ejdemyr, Nall & O’Keeffe conclude,

The current plight of American infrastructure – widely described as a “national infrastructure deficit” – is not a universal phenomenon but represents a long-term legacy of legislative malapportionment and decisions about infrastructure made before cities had equal representation in state legislatures. The poor state of American infrastructure is not merely a result of overall underinvestment, but stems from a historical legacy of unequal treatment that left some areas (notably cities) with a host of social and economic problems, including underfunded road infrastructure.

In an era in which people seem to be rediscovering the value of our center cities, we cannot afford to keep recreating the mistakes of our predecessors. Remedying the anti-urban bias in infrastructure spending will not happen overnight, but it’s well past time that we start.

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  • neroden

    Ohio is in an unfortunate position because it still has 22% rural population. This is enough that, combined with delusional suburbanites who like to think of themselves as rural, it can be gerrymandered into anti-urban control of the state.

    In New York, with 12% rural population, this isn’t possible. In fact, after downloading a chart with the 2010 rural/urban percentages, it looks like “hating on the cities” isn’t possible when the rural population percentage drops to 19% (Oregon) — all the states with rural population percentages equal to or lower than that are doing OK on supporting their cities. Even though some, like Texas, are still highway-mad, they won’t do their highway-building unless the city government supports it.

    I think Pennsylvania may actually have crossed the threshold where the anti-urban interests lost control, and it’s at 21% rural. Perhaps Ohio will be next.

    Weirdly, the states with very high (>50%) rural populations are often quite supportive of their cities. (Maine, Vermont, even West Virginia and Mississippi.) I suppose they aren’t threatened by them.