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Transcript - America's Infrastructure Challenge

I-35 Bridge Collapse in Minneapolis MN on August 4 2007

 

A highway bridge collapses in Minnesota, lead poisons the water of Flint, Michigan, and Americans are reminded of the fragile state of our basic infrastructure—the roads, pipes, power lines, and waterways that make modern life possible. On this episode of History Talk, panelists Steven Conn, Bernadette Hanlon, and Clay Howard discuss the history of public investment in American infrastructure, how it has reached such a perilous state, and what it can tell us about  changing conceptions of the common good. In addition, host Patrick Potyondy interviews the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Tom Smith, who updates us on how our infrastructure is holding up today.

[Listen to the podcast here.]

Transcript Begins Here:

Mark Sokolsky 
Welcome to History Talk, where we bring together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host, Mark Sokolsky. Today we turn our attention to infrastructure, the roads, pipes, bridges, and wires that tie us together and make our everyday lives possible. Our public infrastructure is itself a kind of living history, a physical reminder that things built long ago continue to shape our existence today. Recently, lead contamination in the water system of Flint, Michigan, as well as other municipalities, including in Ohio, has underlined the fact that there are glaring problems with the public infrastructure in the United States. On today's panel, three experts join us to discuss the development and politics of infrastructure, how it came to be in such disrepair, and where we go from here.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
Hi, my name is Bernadette Hanlon. I'm an assistant professor at the City and Regional Planning program here at Ohio State University. And my work is focused mostly on issues around suburbanization, suburban growth, and decline.

Dr. Clay Howard 
Alright. My name's Clay Howard and I teach history in the Department of History here at Ohio State, and I specialize in urban and suburban history, particularly after World War Two.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Hi, I'm Steven Conn. I'm a professor of history in the history department at Miami University down in Oxford, Ohio, where I also teach urban history, among other things.

Mark Sokolsky 
Well, thank you all very much for joining us today. Before we jump into our discussion, host Patrick Potyondy interviewed the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Tom Smith, to give us an update on where things stand today.

Patrick Potyondy 
This is Patrick Potyondy. And I'm speaking over the phone with Tom Smith, Executive Director of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Tom, thank you for joining us today on History Talk.

Tom Smith 
Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Patrick Potyondy 
So to start off, your organization, the ASCE, produces a national report card every four years. Can you briefly describe what it is?

Tom Smith 
You bet. We started this report card back in 1998. The concept for that actually started in 1988 with the National Council on Public Works Improvement. They issued a report on America's public works.

Patrick Potyondy 
Oh, interesting.

Tom Smith 
Yeah, congressionally chartered. And so ten years later, we said it'd be nice if that report continued. So we said, let's start our own. And we did that in 1998, to continue that on, and we then issued the report in 2001, 2005, 2009, as well as 2013.

Patrick Potyondy 
Great, and can you give us some details on the report cards' size and scope, maybe a little bit on how the ASCE goes about conducting this evaluation?

Tom Smith 
Sure. And by the way, the next report card will come out in 2017. What we do is we look at 16 categories of America's infrastructure, so that includes aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit, and wastewater. And overall, then we have a cumulative grade point average. And we do it just like you would a report card that your kids would take home. And unfortunately, right now, the cumulative GPA is a D plus, although that is actually, in 2013, higher than it was in 2009, when it was at a D.

Patrick Potyondy 
Okay, so there has been a little bit improvement in the most recent years, then.

Tom Smith 
Yes, in fact, none of the categories went down between 2009 and 2013. And six categories did go up. But again, our greatest is still at a D plus, so it's certainly not a grade that you'd be proud to take home and show your parents.

Patrick Potyondy 
Yeah, exactly, nothing to write home about, certainly. Are there any specific examples you'd like to highlight to show just how bad some of our infrastructure has become?

Tom Smith 
Well, in general, I'll just mention, some things are out of sight, out of mind, I'm afraid, things like drinking water and wastewater networks. We have about 240,000 waterline breaks every year. So every couple of minutes, there's a water outbreak in the United States. Yeah and so unfortunately, these things are also part of a larger system. So here in D.C., I was downtown in 2014 when the D.C. metro water line broke, and then it shuts down the metro. So two, three lines break, go down, and so now that is shutting down your transit system, and all those people are going up to find taxis and to see if they can get on buses. And so there's just gridlock on the transportation system. So those things are all interconnected. So we do see that, unfortunately, with many different areas, both in transportation, water lines, etc.

Patrick Potyondy 
Yeah, and you mentioned that some of these are out of sight, out of mind. Why do you think that is? Why is it so easy for folks to forget about these sorts of things?

Tom Smith 
You know, I think we just take it for granted.

Patrick Potyondy 
Right.

Tom Smith 
You know, you turn on the water, you get clean water every day, and wastewater is removed, and we just don't think about it. I think maybe sometimes to transportation, sitting in traffic, people do realize it. But it's unfortunate, we've got...much of our infrastructure has been built many decades ago, post-World War Two, our interstate highway system, and these things require operation and maintenance and we're nearing the end of the useful life of much of our infrastructure. And so we have to maintain it, just as you would your home or your car.

Patrick Potyondy 
Right. And so lastly, what would you like to happen next? How might we address this huge problem?

Tom Smith 
Well, the first thing we tried to do is just change the conversation and make sure everybody's aware of the issue. And that's one of the things we've done with the report card. We really need to increase our leadership when it comes to infrastructure renewal, we need to also focus on sustainability and resilience, and we need to develop and fund plans to maintain our infrastructure. So relative to transportation, we've been a big advocate of increasing the gas tax as a sustainable financial way - 

Patrick Potyondy 
Right, which hasn't been increased for some years, right?

Tom Smith 
Yes, since 1992. So we just don't have the funding mechanism in place. And unfortunately, with infrastructure, the people who use it are going to have to pay for it. We all have to pay for infrastructure, we all benefit from it.

Patrick Potyondy 
Okay. Well, Tom Smith is the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, which every four years produces a report card on America's infrastructure. Tom, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Tom Smith 
Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks very much.

Patrick Potyondy 
Thank you.

Mark Sokolsky 
Now we turn to our three panelists, Steve Conn, Clay Howard and Bernadette Hanlon. So start off, how is it that the world's richest country receives a D plus on its public infrastructure? How did we get to this point? Maybe Clay, we can start with you.

Dr. Clay Howard 
There's probably a lot of reasons. And I would say that one important one would be, suburbanization itself creates a kind of fragmented metropolitan region, and so a lot of time, states and the federal government steer resources, particularly things like roads and like sewers and power lines and things like that, to the edge of metropolitan areas. And very often the bulk of the funding goes to building new infrastructure instead of replacing old infrastructure. And as you get new municipalities, there's competition for taxes and jobs and so forth. And so a lot of the suburbs and core cities struggle to balance their budgets and find ways to maintain infrastructure that was built sometimes 60-70 years ago.

Dr. Steven Conn 
You know, I think Clay's right about that. But I want to sound much more simplified. I think the problem here is the tax revolts that started in the 1970s and were carried to Washington in the 1980s by the Reagan administration. I think one of the enormous things that happened, in what Reagan called his "New Federalism," was a shift in the responsibility for these kinds of projects to states and then localities. The federal government really stopped spending the money and told the states it was essentially their problems. And states either chose not to invest in maintaining these infrastructures or really didn't have the capacity to do that, because they needed the help from the federal government. So this is not a technological problem. This is not an engineering problem. We know how to fix the sewer lines. This is a problem of money, and the unwillingness of people to spend money on it.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
Yeah, I echo that. The federal government has really withdrawn an awful lot in terms of funding for infrastructure to cities and states. You know, when I used to live in Baltimore City, and Baltimore had a huge problem with its sewer infrastructure, and lots of leaky sewers, creating all sorts of environmental problems. And the EPA basically mandated that the city fix its sewer infrastructure to the cost of close to a billion dollars. And not really it was sort of seen as an unfunded kinda mandate, and I think this is a really big problem.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Baltimore doesn't have a billion dollars to just sort of pull out of its pocket.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
Exactly. So it takes the federal government, I think, to really pump that kind of money into what's needed.

Mark Sokolsky 
When did the federal government get into the infrastructure game in a big way? I mean, when did it become so essential?

Dr. Steven Conn 
Well, in my reading of things, I think these infrastructure projects start at the local level in the nineteenth century. That continues through the early twentieth century, but during the New Deal in the 1930s, these kinds of projects became seen as federal responsibility and federal action. So you think about things like the road building projects that the WPA and other federal agencies built, I think that's really the moment when the federal government gets into this business in a big way. And that's when we also start to see the planning for large scale infrastructure projects. President Dwight Eisenhower is usually given credit for the interstate highway system, which he did sign that legislation in 1956. But what he was signing was a plan that had really begun to percolate in the '30s, and World War Two got in the way, and so on and so forth. But that's really...I think the '30s is the moment when these infrastructure projects are seen as a national priority.

Dr. Clay Howard 
One of the things that I thought was interesting, as I was thinking about coming here for this podcast, was a lot of times the federal government has...we're posing the question about infrastructure and maintaining infrastructure and how has it gotten so bad, but often these things get built with the idea of economic development in the future in mind, so the New Deal often was about trying to counteract the effects of depression. The first big federal involvement in infrastructure would be subsidies for the railroads in the nineteenth century.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Sure.

Dr. Clay Howard 
And the idea was both to create jobs like on railroads, but also that this is good for the larger economy. And so to some degree, the beginning of the project is about future economic development and making that happen. But also not necessarily...like the idea of like maintaining that infrastructure is not necessarily the biggest justification for doing something. It's an imagined future that's important to them.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
Yeah. And I think what's interesting about what Clay is talking about here is, a lot of our infrastructure is actually private. And if you think about airlines, you think about the internet, you think about all the telecommunications, they're really owned by private entities and regulated. You know, electricity and so on. But there's also that element too, that we're not really discussing necessarily as potentially kind of problematic. Although you could say that there are some issues when there's any kind of storm event, where your electricity is going to go down. But with this idea that this economic opportunity with that and so the private sector kind of takes that on, and maybe at some point, the federal government starts to...or other sort of investment needs to happen, but -

Dr. Steven Conn 
That's a really interesting point. That's really important, Bernadette, and I hadn't really thought about it in that way. And I guess I wonder, though, about those moments when the project or the technology here has, in a sense, two sides to it. One is the profit-making side and the other is the necessary infrastructure side, which isn't necessarily a profit-making. So I'm thinking about the electric grid, right? All of our electricity comes from power companies who are out to make a profit on our electricity use, but nobody wants to take responsibility for repairing the grid, because that's not immediately profitable on my monthly -

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
Right. Right.

Dr. Steven Conn 
- On my monthly bill. And that's, I think, part of the dilemma here is that if it's profitable, then our cell phones will get updated. But if it isn't, the networks that hold our cell phones together may not work anymore.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
Right.

Mark Sokolsky 
Do you think that this sort of fracturing into private networks is increasing, or has been increasing in the recent past? Or this is something sort of more of the railroad age than of today?

Dr. Clay Howard 
That's a good question.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Well, I think it has been the dream. So when I talk about this shift in the financing that begins in the 1980s, what I refer to, when I teach this, as the "Age of Deferred Maintenance," the kicking the can down the road. The dream of certain kind of free market economists is that the private sector will figure out a way to do these projects. There was, ten or maybe more years ago, a project on the drawing boards to build a privately funded superhighway in Texas. And they had a financing model for this, it was not going to be...I assume that the land would all be seized by eminent domain. But nonetheless, the building was all going to be funded privately. That didn't go anywhere. There's also a project on the drawing board right now to build a bullet train, a high-speed rail link, between Houston and Dallas, all privately funded. It remains to be seen whether that will go anywhere. I think that it has always been the sort of the holy grail of a certain set of economists that we don't need to pay for this, it will be done by the private sector, but thus far it hasn't happened.

Dr. Clay Howard 
Yeah, it's important to point out too, I think that whether we're talking about like the railroads in the 1860s and 1870s or we're talking about the internet, or some other piece of infrastructure today, the government's always involved, right. It would be unfair to break it into pure public and private. You know, just because everything doesn't look like the interstate highway system doesn't mean that the government isn't present and that yeah, there's people who have kind of like a free market vision of what infrastructure could look like. But more often, whether it's pork rail projects of one kind or another, but there's always a kind of subsidy for large corporations who are building infrastructure.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Yeah, no, I think that's exactly right, and I think this goes back to the question you posed at the outset. How did we get to this point where, according to the engineers, we have a D plus on our infrastructure report card, and I think Americans as a whole love government support, but they don't want to be reminded of it. They want it to be hidden, and they therefore want to take it for granted. And I think in microcosm, that's our infrastructure problem. All of this stuff has been built with combinations of public support, and some private investments, but we don't want to be reminded of that. We just want it to be there when we turn the spicket on or we get on the on-ramp.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
Yeah, I mean, just to think about jumping back to something that Clay mentioned earlier about the government structure, and I think this is really important when you think about issues like what occurred in Flint, where you see a sort of decades of disinvestment occurring in certain jurisdictions in some central cities as the suburbs kind of continued to grow. We've reached a point there where you'd really essentially abandoned some of these places to leave them to kind of deal with their own kind of problems. And that not being possible with loss of tax base and all of these things, that they end up not being able to really fund their own infrastructure, I think, so our kind of model of growth and this constant kind of shifting outwards in terms of suburbanization, I think does play a large role in some of these issues, I think.

Dr. Clay Howard 
Yeah, I was going to say, thinking a lot about like the tax revolt, and of course, I want to acknowledge the very real infrastructure problems that exist. But you know, when I was thinking about this, I feel like there is a bipartisan consensus among voters when it comes to highway construction. And they say like, what is the role of government? You know, road building is one of them. And I was doing some research about Texas before I came here, and I saw that they just passed a constitutional amendment that allows the state to move some tax money around. They're not going to raise taxes, right, so Steve's right, like the government doesn't want to be seen as raising taxes, but they're moving money in order to build more highways and to maintain the highways they already have to try and fix the budgets. And so to some degree, people like infrastructure.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Oh, yeah. They just don't want to pay for it.

Dr. Clay Howard 
Well.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Yeah, that's what it comes down to. I mean, the federal gasoline tax, I don't think has budged in almost 20 years. And people just really don't seem to want to acknowledge that it costs money to fix the potholes. It's as if somehow this is going to fix themselves. And so at the end of the day, the infrastructure report card that we started the show off with is really just a grade on a political process. Because Clay is right, I think if you asked any voter of any stripe, should we have good roads and should the water not have lead in it? And on and on, everybody would say absolutely. But as soon as you say, okay, well, how much are you willing to raise your taxes or the gasoline tax, whatever, to repair these things? Everybody says no, and that's just a straightforward political problem.

Dr. Clay Howard 
And my potholes are always more important, though.

Dr. Steven Conn 
That's certainly right, damn it. So I was thinking, coming in, about the way in which the infrastructure trajectory that we've seen in this country, which we built it and now we've let it crumble, tracks a certain kind of attitude we have about how we define the common good in this country or how we have stopped thinking in terms of the common good. It used to be that everybody, again of all political stripes, acknowledged that there were certain basic things that you needed as a society, certain kinds of infrastructures and investments. And you fought over maybe how big or how little you were going to do, or whether you were going to extend this road or not maybe extend this road, but there wasn't a fundamental disagreement over what defined the common good. And now again, over the last 30 years, there are significant numbers of political politicians who don't believe there's a common good at all, and therefore, we shouldn't have to pay for something that they don't acknowledge really exists. So I want to pick on the late great Chris Christie for a moment, because I think his political career over the last two and a half years illustrates beautifully how what was once the common good has simply become another piece of political shenanigans. So he got into a great deal of trouble when it was discovered that he and his inner circle of high school buddies closed the George Washington Bridge, right, so we're going to play with this infrastructure as a way of punishing certain politicians in municipalities in New Jersey for not supporting Chris Christie. And at almost the same moment when that story was breaking, Chris Christie decided not to partner with the state of New York to build a third rail tunnel under the Hudson River to connect New Jersey with New York. Now everybody acknowledges that that project needs to be built, that this choke point in the freight and passenger rail is strangling the economy. The tunnels that currently exist are a hundred years old, and Chris Christie, getting ready to run for president, knew that he needed to position himself as a guy who wasn't going to spend any public money. So passengers and freight trains be damned, he was going to demonstrate that he wasn't going to build a public project, even though we all know it needs to be built.

Mark Sokolsky 
A bit like Kasich with the rails right?

Dr. Steven Conn 
That's right.

Mark Sokolsky 
- Federal money, but then just sort of turned it down just for the show of it.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Yep. That's right.

Mark Sokolsky 
So I feel like we often talk about the interstate system as a kind of exemplar of public funding. Would you say that that is the sort of high watermark of public investment in the United States, the early '50s? When do you think the ASCE would have given U.S. a high grade?

Dr. Steven Conn 
A high grade? That's a really interesting question.

Dr. Clay Howard 
I can't speak for the engineers. I would say yeah, the interstate highway project is probably the gold standard. The only thing I would throw in there and I just...does NASA count? Because in a way, like the space program -

Dr. Steven Conn 
Sure, sure.

Dr. Clay Howard 
- You can also see the infrastructure and also a big kind of infrastructure investment. But that's the only thing I would put on par, maybe, with the highways.

Dr. Steven Conn 
I think Tom Smith mentioned in that introduction that they started doing this report in 1988. And that may be telling that by 1988, people recognize that this was something that needed to be evaluated. So presumably in 1968, the engineers didn't think that this needed to be evaluated, right. And so I suspect that's right. You could call it the '50s, or even into the 1960s. And so the interstate highway project is, you know, everybody sort of recognizes that as a federal project. But even the smaller projects that take place locally, especially water projects, sewer projects, are also getting federal money through a variety of programs. So they don't look as big and as sexy, but they are equally as significant.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
I think a lot of those, with the sewer and water infrastructure, I think was a lot to do with the environmental movement too. The concerns about water quality and issues like that were very important in building wastewater treatment plants.

Dr. Clay Howard 
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
And actually investing then in the sewers, and those sewers then actually leading to more suburbanization. So but yeah, I think the 1970s was really important with regard to some of the water and sewer infrastructure for sure.

Mark Sokolsky 
So there was a spate of infrastructure in wastewater treatment, mid/late-'70s?

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
From the issues of the Clean Water Act and various legislation.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Well, up in Cleveland, when the river caught on fire, that was a sort of a moment to say, maybe we should do something about this water here. And when the stockyards of Chicago were still right south of the loop, all of that stuff was just dumped into the Chicago River, and it would float into the lake and so right, this impetus to create wastewater treatment and deal with water was, I think, a consequence, in large part, of the environmental movement.

Mark Sokolsky 
It's interesting to me how the interstate in some ways, this is a golden age of investment in public infrastructure, and yet it has sort of enabled some of the withdrawal from that very mentality by encouraging suburbanization. Do you see a reverse flow now, back to cities? You know, certain cities are kind of booming in their cores. And do you think that the tokens need a wider shift and mentalities?

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
So it's actually interesting in terms of infrastructure, and I think some suburbs are sort of retrofitting themselves in some ways, in part because of some of their problems with with aging infrastructure. So we just did a study of Upper Arlington in Ohio, and what's essentially kind of a problem there was, it's a fairly wealthy suburb but also struggling a little bit from fiscal stress with some withdrawal from the state funding and losing their estate tax. They had a fairly important kind of fiscal problems that they realized were going to get worse because of their aging infrastructure. And so they've really moved towards some sort of economic development, and developing their commercial spaces and building some sort of economic base as a way to help fund some of their infrastructure issues. So I think there is sort of an interesting process here where you could see places retrofitting, in a way to try and bring some new mixed-use, sort of commercial development to help improve their tax base so that they can help improve their infrastructure. So it's sort of an interesting process that's going on, I think.

Dr. Steven Conn 
I was just in New York a couple of days ago, and I flew into LaGuardia and had to take a fairly long cab ride down to Brooklyn. And you get this view of the Manhattan skyline. And what you see doing on that ride is exactly what you just talked about, Mark, and that is that there has been a tremendous investment of new money coming into some cities. And you can see this in the skyscrapers that are going up. The ride I took, however, was on a road, which might as well have been in Siberia, in terms of how potholed, I mean, it was literally the concrete was crumbling off the rails. So I think that's the problem that we talked about a moment ago, between what gets done privately and what needs to get done publicly. So there's never been more money being invested in high-end real estate in New York or Chicago or a bunch of other places, even as the road you take to the airport is falling apart. And those real estate developers aren't going to solve that infrastructure problem, because they don't care. That's not what they're in the business of doing.

Dr. Clay Howard 
And a lot of downtown redevelopment has been financed by tax abatements, you know. So some of those high rises, in some ways, are undercutting that money for infrastructure because they're not paying taxes for 10 years.

Dr. Steven Conn 
And again, those developers all assume that they'll be able to tap into the water main and pump that drinking water up 100 floors to their penthouse apartments, and they don't think at all about the sort of distress on the whole system for eight million people in New York who need clean water. And again, it's this difference between the sort of fetishizing of private investment and the erosion of any sense of common or public good.

Mark Sokolsky 
To get back to that question of the public good, everyone has talked about the role of the federal government in the last 50, well 70 years really. Is it possible to shift some of that sense of responsibility to localities or to states in a way that's fiscally feasible or is that just, it's beyond the capabilities of local governments?

Dr. Clay Howard 
You know, ultimately infrastructure is a question of our connectedness, right? I mean, ultimately, if you're building a road or some kind of power line or water system, it's something that's going to have to be done at least regionally, if not larger, and then if you have fragmented metropolitan regions where different cities and suburbs are competing with one another, that undercuts the possibility for cooperation. So to some degree, the federal government is the entity that has the ability to bridge those kinds of competitive divisions?

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
Yeah, I mean, some of these municipalities are really small. If you're talking about some of these suburbs that can be only a couple of thousand people. They just don't have the government capacity to do something like that in any kind of major scale.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Yeah. And I think again, to follow on what Clay just said, Flint is a really wonderful example of how this was a problem seen inside a particular city. But it was the result of a set of regional dominoes that all began to fall. Water that was from the Detroit water system now being purchased from a different water system, coming out of the lake but not yet coming out of a different...So those are at least regional problems and frankly, multi-regional problems, when you start talking about those kinds of shared resources and whatnot. The interstate highway system doesn't work if you can drive really nicely across Massachusetts, and then you hit the New York border and the roads are terrible. That's not really a workable system.

Dr. Clay Howard 
And I don't know if you wanted to talk about the Flint water crisis, but you asked about the federal government and to a fair degree, the federal government bears responsibility for what happened in Flint, not just in the sense of direct money for water, but since suburbanization itself was federally subsidized, the federal government after World War Two encouraged industries and businesses to relocate away from older urban areas and particularly to the Sun Belt, but also to suburbs around Flint. And then, the whole question that the Flint water crisis hinges on this manager that gets appointed by the state to take over because Flint is bankrupt. And the question is why is Flint bankrupt? And that's because for most of the twentieth century, particularly after World War Two and then later in the '70s and '80s, most of the tax base left, either to wider Genesee County or the South.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Mexico.

Dr. Clay Howard 
Yeah, or another another part of the world. And so, to the extent that the federal government facilitated that process, which it did, it bears responsibility for fixing it.

Mark Sokolsky 
Just to clarify, what exactly did the federal government do to encourage suburbanization, to encourage people to move outside of the inner city?

Dr. Clay Howard 
Sure. So there are a number of different things. One was that things like the GI Bill, or the Federal Housing Administration, the government insured home loans to banks, and essentially like the short version is that they said to the banks, "If you agree to follow a set of rules that we'll give you, we will reimburse you for people who default on their loans." This is most talked about in suburban history as it relates to redlining and segregation, because FHA guidelines and VA guidelines redlined predominantly black areas and said these are bad places to lend money, so this is a kind of a whites-only policy. But they also did it through the secondary mortgage market, where they were trying to encourage outside investment. And so the government bought up mortgages in a way to try and demonstrate confidence in the mortgage market, and just trying to get outside investment to buy the mortgages of newer suburban developments.

Dr. Steven Conn 
And can I just throw in there as well that the FHA and the variety of federally sponsored mortgage programs placed a real premium on new construction. So it was increasingly difficult to get those kinds of subsidies for older buildings, but you could get them quite easily for new houses. And so where are the older houses and where are the newer houses? It stimulated that growth because that's where the money was.

Dr. Clay Howard 
That's right. I think the stat is something like eight or nine out of ten houses that got FHA or VA subsidies after World War Two were built outside of older metropolitan or older urban areas.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
You could argue that we're still subsidizing with the mortgage interest tax deduction that people get on owning your own home. And we could argue that that's the...I mean, that is one of the biggest subsidies for housing that the federal government has.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Right.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
And we don't like to think of it as a subsidy. But essentially, that's what it is. And so, you could argue that this subsidization of suburbanization continues today.

Mark Sokolsky 
So just to wrap things up, what do you think needs to happen to raise that grade, to get more public investment in infrastructure, thinking back to some of the shifts that have occurred over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

Dr. Clay Howard 
Wow.

Dr. Steven Conn 
We're historians.

Dr. Clay Howard 
Yeah, no I -

Dr. Steven Conn 
We worry about the past.

Dr. Clay Howard 
I'll say two things. Two things. One would be some kind of metropolitan or regional government, which is something that I know planners talk about, right. It's something to unite the interests of a metropolitan area. But also, I think Steve's right to point out that a lot of this is people reluctant to pay more in taxes. But like I said earlier, I do think people do believe that road building or infrastructure building is a function of government, both for their own lives and as a part of economic development, like, for better or for worse. And you see moments like the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, where people really start to panic about it. And I think the Flint crisis, for some people at least, is a moment where people are having a kind of conversation like this one about the need to make sure that we're paying enough to fund infrastructure.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
And I think it's also important to...getting back to some of these regional kinds of issues and in terms of regional planning, I mean, one of the things is to also think about is well, what kinds of infrastructure do we want to invest in and you know, we've done a really poor job of investing in any kind of public transit, for instance. So I think it's also the politics of what we decide. How we decide to spend this money is also important, because if you have more public transit, you won't have as much growth. You won't have as much abandonment of existing cities. And maybe we'll see more reinvestment then in the aging infrastructure of those places. And these are big decisions, I think.

Dr. Steven Conn 
You know, as I was thinking about this dilemma, because I knew you were going to ask us this question, I was thinking about the analogy of the public schools, which everybody acknowledges are in crisis, and in fact, everybody has said they've been in crisis for 50 years. And the analogy I want to make is that everybody thinks the public schools are failing, except their own. People are generally happy with the public school they send their own kids to. It's everybody else's schools that are failing, and I think that's the problem for infrastructure. The bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, I'm not anywhere near Minneapolis, so that's a terrible story I hear on the 6:30 news and oh my goodness, but until it hits home, I'm not motivated necessarily to start agitating, organizing, calling my Congress person to complain about it. And these infrastructure fails are all, in a sense, on a small scale in local places. And so trying to create some sense of political momentum nationally, or even regionally, to fix these problems is a real challenge, I think.

Mark Sokolsky 
All right. Well, we're going to have to wrap it up there. But thank you all very much for joining us today. We've had with us today Bernadette Hanlon, assistant professor of City and Regional Planning at Ohio State University, Clay Howard, assistant professor of history at Ohio State University, and Steven Conn, professor of history at Miami University. Thanks, everybody.

Dr. Clay Howard 
Thanks.

Dr. Steven Conn 
Thanks, Mark.

Dr. Bernadette Hanlon 
Thank you.

Patrick Potyondy 
This episode of History Talk podcast was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center and history department at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website, origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Thanks for listening.