One Iconoclast’s Blunt Message on Transportation Funding

After advising municipalities on how to construct roads for years, Charles Marohn now believes America needs to stop building new highways. Will his new way of thinking catch on?
June 2015
At a TEDx event, Charles Marohn explains the difference between a road and a street. (John Connelly Photography)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

It would be easy to dismiss Charles Marohn as a crank. At a time when half of Washington is batting around numbers that purport to reveal how much money Congress should spend to save the nation’s troubled transportation system, Marohn is suggesting the simplest number of all: zero. What the system needs, Marohn says, isn’t a big infusion of cash, but a thorough examination of what it ought to be doing in the first place. Barring such an examination, he wouldn’t give the transportation system a dime.

Marohn is an unrepentant iconoclast, but he is no crank. He is a soft-spoken civil engineer from small-town Minnesota who spent most of two decades giving local governments conventional advice on how to build and repair roads, sidewalks and bridges. His solutions came straight out of the Green Book, published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the bible that engineers all over the country use in dealing with transportation issues. But eventually he decided that his advice wasn’t worth much. He was telling communities to build high-speed streets and highways that were neither attractive nor safe. What the local residents really needed, Marohn came to believe, was less-intrusive, lower-speed infrastructure that fostered human-scale street life and a safe pedestrian presence.

So Marohn put aside his Green Book and became an activist. He started the blog Strong Towns and began putting his dissenting ideas into print. He followed up by developing a presentation of these ideas, called the Curbside Chat, and taking it to audiences around the country. He found himself attracting good-sized crowds and coverage in the local media. Five years and 200 Curbside Chats later, Marohn has made himself a stealthy presence in the current debate over federal transportation law. Some of the players in Washington have barely heard of him. But if you ask local leaders in Sarasota, Fla., or Sandpoint, Idaho, or York, Pa., you will find many who not only know about him but also pay attention to him. “There’s a groundswell that we’re giving voice to,” he insists. “Our strength is talking to normal people.”

I spoke with Marohn by phone recently as he drove to Palm Beach, Fla., to give a Curbside Chat presentation before flying to La Crosse, Wis., to give another one the next night. He reiterated his view that the country can survive a while longer without a sweeping new federal transportation bill. Doing nothing, he said, “is preferable to throwing a lot of money at the current approach.”

The gospel according to Marohn is simple enough to put into a few words: We have built too many highways. We have built them in places that didn’t need them. We have built them in places that can’t afford to maintain them. That’s why the federal Transportation Trust Fund is going broke. And if Congress approves a new transportation bill under the old rules, we’ll just build more unneeded roads and force the communities that host them into a further cycle of debt.

Marohn isn’t against spending federal dollars to repair the infrastructure we have. He’s against handing more money over to transportation planners who will always be able to find an excuse to build something new. “The present system is overbuilt and is going to contract,” Marohn recently wrote. “We have so much transportation infrastructure that every level of government is now choking on maintenance costs. I’m tired of seeing bridges fall down and expensive roads go bad while we spend billions on new stuff we will never be able to maintain.”

Marohn identifies himself as a conservative Republican, a stance that seems compromised in some ways by his close ties to the New Urbanist movement, most of whose leaders are liberal Democrats. But in keeping with his Republican roots, Marohn makes his arguments against highway building from a fiscal perspective. He doesn’t talk much about climate change, aesthetics or social justice. He talks about wasting the taxpayers’ money.

Marohn tells his Curbside audiences that highway building and suburban sprawl are essentially a Ponzi scheme. A new interchange or bypass connected to an interstate highway brings a community a much-appreciated windfall as residential and commercial development takes place near the highway, and the homeowners and commercial tenants begin contributing property taxes to the local treasury. For a few years, everyone is happy. But in the long run, property taxes aren’t sufficient to meet the costs that the development creates: additional sewers, road repair, and the creation of new parks and public schools to cater to the families that move in.

The local government can cover these bills by attracting more growth, and this is what many of them do. The new round of growth pays for the previous one -- this is why Marohn calls it a Ponzi scheme. But the opportunities for growth are ultimately finite, and eventually most communities are forced into debt to pay for all the growth they have cheerfully approved. “Few cities,” Marohn says, “have any clue of the scale of their commitment for infrastructure maintenance.”

Marohn’s is a coherent theory of how governments got themselves into the predicament that now befalls them. There are plenty of others. The federal gas tax hasn’t been increased by Congress since 1993. Given a sufficient boost, it might come close to supporting the nation’s infrastructure needs in 2015. Marohn argues that even if this is true, the gas tax hike that would be required now for catch-up purposes would be so large as to be politically impossible. On this score, he is probably right.

Free-market conservatives say that had the Highway Trust Fund not been “raided” during the Reagan administration to include money for mass transit, it would be much closer to solvency than it is today. This may be true as well. But the trust fund was broadened to include transit as a way of attracting urban and some suburban votes; those votes are likely to be as crucial now as they were in the 1980s.

Defunding new highways altogether is not an idea that Congress is likely to take seriously as it debates a long-term transportation policy. Republicans have flirted with it, though. Earlier this year, two GOP lawmakers, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, proposed what they call the Transportation Empowerment Act, which would reduce the gas tax from its current 18.4 cents a gallon to 3.7 cents over five years and turn almost all responsibility for the federal highway system to the states. The modest amount of money left in the trust fund would be used only for maintenance of existing highways. Any state that wanted a new highway within its borders would have to finance the project with its own tax money.

This idea is a nonstarter for congressional Democrats and the Obama administration, and for a significant number of Republicans as well. It has no chance of being enacted into law. But it attracted an angry blast from the engineering and road-building establishment, whose leaders argue that in the antitax environment that prevails across much of the country, most states would not replace the federal money they were losing. Crucial infrastructure needs would go unmet. Marohn, unpredictable as usual, responded that the Republican idea might be worth listening to. At first, he wrote recently, “I wasn’t an advocate of the Transportation Empowerment Act. If you are defined by your enemies, however, having hysteric members of the infrastructure cult line up against it makes me think it deserves a lot more attention.”

In fact, it’s not so certain that states would simply turn their backs on infrastructure responsibilities if the federal gas tax went away. As the highly respected transportation blogger Kenneth Orski has carefully documented, states have actually been quite busy on the transportation front while Congress has made little progress. Orski reports that 23 states, many of them solidly Republican, have considered measures to raise transportation revenue this year. Several have gone for increases in their state gas taxes. Georgia, no bastion of free-spending fiscal policy, raised its fuel tax to 21.7 cents and indexed it to inflation. Maine Gov. Paul LePage, as cranky an antitax zealot as there is in the country, has proposed a new $2 billion plan to rehabilitate state infrastructure.

So it’s at least plausible that quite a few states would put serious money into infrastructure if the federal trust fund went away. That would give Marohn a sort of moral victory over the highway construction lobby, his arch-enemy. But it wouldn’t really satisfy him, because for the most part the states have been as fixated on new construction as the feds are. A true victory for Marohnism would require not just a shift in transportation dollars but also a shift in transportation thinking. That doesn’t seem to be on the immediate horizon.

Still, there are small signs of change even at the policymaking level. President Obama’s six-year transportation proposal, while no more likely to be approved intact than the Republican plan, does include some touches friendly to Marohn and his mavericks. One provision would make it possible for states to charge tolls on more interstate highways. Another term would encourage more experiments in congestion pricing.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, the cities of Cleveland and Akron told the Department of Transportation recently that they wanted to divert some of their state money away from construction of new roads and into maintaining the existing ones: a “fix it first” policy. The state turned them down. For those who share Marohn’s attitude toward transportation policy, however, what those cities wanted to do could be seen as a straw in the wind. “I’m a pariah,” Marohn admits. “But I’m making progress.”