By Neal Peirce,

Maybe you’ve seen the headlines — “Engineers Warn Infrastructure Crumbling” — accompanied by stories saying it’s imperative we spend billions, sometimes trillions to fix America’s deteriorating roadways, bridges, water and sewer systems.

I’ve written some of those stories myself. And there’s no doubt — keeping public infrastructure in shape, like fixing leaks and keeping a house’s roof in decent condition, is the essence of common sense.

But which spending, and how? Especially on the roadways front, it’s time to think again, asserts Charles Marohn, a civil engineer and conservative Republican and founder of a “Strong Towns” website.

We built a massive interstate highway system — “and then built more,” Marohn asserts: “We poured money in highways, county roads and local streets. We have so much transportation infrastructure — a huge proportion of it with no productivity — that every level of government is now choking on maintenance costs.”

Quite often, Marohn contends, we maintain our “overbuilt” road network while virtually every other city and state service is being cut. Big dollar sums simply “feed strip development.” And on our superhighways, he argues, “We’ve spent trillions to save seconds in the first and last mile of each trip” — resulting in “the fake prosperity of a land use pattern that is bankrupting us, housing bubble and all.”

So when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued its latest report, arguing the United States needs to spend $1.7 trillion on highways and transit systems just by 2020 — doubling current budget projections — Marohn had a terse response. The demand, he said, was “self-serving,” a way to “open up the checkbook for our noble engineers.”

What’s more, Marohn insisted, several of ASCE’s projections of dire economic losses without massively increased spending were based on seriously flawed math.

So what should cities, towns and counties do in the face of radically reduced federal and state dollars for roads? Marohn has a harsh prescription: Focus on the roads you can actually build and maintain from your own resources.

Some localities are already there. Growing numbers of hard-pressed counties — in Michigan, Alabama, Pennsylvania and other states — are actually “depaving,” tearing up lightly-used asphalt rural roads and replacing them with gravel or other rough surfaces.

Other long-term, cost-saving strategies also exist for local governments. Examples: stop extending or improving roads for strip development. Focus on downtowns and neighborhood centers. Shift zoning to encourage mixed use instead of separated residential and commercial areas. And repeal sprawl inducements like minimum parking requirements for stores or apartment complexes.

The “Complete Streets” movement offers a promising model to make roads safer and “multi-use” friendly by redesigning them to be welcoming for everyone — walkers, cyclists, transit users, and motor vehicles. Even before the recession, my colleague Curtis Johnson noticed that in Minnesota, motorists faced with traffic congestion were finding ways to get closer to jobs and other places they need to be. Complete Streets could act as a magnet, conceivably accelerating the recently-reported decisions of some firms to desert their suburban office parks for more convenient in-town locations.

It’s true — costs for maintaining and replacing antiquated urban water and sewer systems may be even tougher to deal with. But like roadways, they can more easily be made cost-efficient in areas of concentrated rather than spread-out development.

The harsh fact, however, is that no matter how well we reform land use, America’s need for prompt infrastructure repair and replacement remains a massive challenge. The engineers’ figures may be exaggerated, but the bottom line need isn’t.

Fortunately, there’s a partial solution that doesn’t require massive new and compounding public debt. It would be creation of a national infrastructure bank able to draw on some of the enormous sums of capital now on the sidelines, currently unavailable to state and local governments, in pension, sovereign, private-equity, hedge, insurance and corporate funds.
Most nations have such an instrument, notes Michael Likosky, senior fellow at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge. And now there’s a congressional proposal for an American Infrastructure Financing Authority, introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

Granted a one-time $10 billion federal capital infusion, the bank would be able to extend loans and limited loan guarantees to projects short on immediate cash but able to pay for themselves over the long term. Examples would include energy, water or trash disposal plants that can collect user fees, or seaports that anticipates a revenue flow from goods passing through.

Critically important: the proposed bank would be limited to 50 percent of a project’s cost. Private investment would have to cover the rest. That single requirement would represent a giant step toward assurance of the clear cost effectiveness that’s so easily forgotten, or conveniently overlooked, by every player from congressional and state legislative committees to state highway departments and city councils.

It’s about time.