How can we judge infrastructure spending?

A new light rail line under construction in Sydney. Image: Getty.

In moments of fierce political competition, there’s one topic where most candidates find common ground – and that’s infrastructure spending. Pledges to spend more on transport, energy, water, waste and telecommunications systems are seen as vote winners in democracies across the globe.

In the United States, Donald Trump promised to deliver a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. And, in the UK general election campaign, all major parties made substantial commitments for infrastructure in their manifestos. Even the far-reaching austerity policies favoured by Western governments across the globe have failed to put a dent in infrastructure spending.

But while parties across the political spectrum readily commit to big-budget projects, it can be difficult for voters to know what outcomes to expect from the billions pledged toward infrastructure. Here are some tips to help you make sense of the sweeping claims and enormous pledges that politicians are wont to make regarding infrastructure, whenever a poll approaches.

Sensible spending requires a plan

Governments as far apart as the UK, Australia and New Zealand promote themselves based on their big infrastructure budgets. But not all investments are the same – and a big budget doesn’t guarantee better value for the public.

Infrastructure spending can be broadly divided into capital expenditure (building new things), operations (running what we already have) and maintenance (repairing what we already have). Getting value from infrastructure requires good decisions across all three categories.

Politicians love building new infrastructure: ribbon-cutting, high-vis vests and hard hats are a PR opportunity which few can resist. Photo-ops aside though, politicians may also favour big projects over smaller ones because it’s easier to overcome opposition and see them through to fruition. Yet investments in big-ticket infrastructure projects should be made with clear goals in mind. Unless an investment addresses a clear public need, it can easily result in a white elephant.

Governing in style: former UK prime minister David Cameron touring London’s Crossrail. Image: The Prime Minister's Office/Flickr/creative commons.

For example, the rationale for the UK’s HS2 – a high-speed rail link between London and northern England – has changed several times throughout its planning phase, suggesting that it may be a project searching for a problem to solve. What’s more, the project’s ability to regenerate the country’s north (one of it’s key selling points) may depend on complementary investments across the region, in addition to the rail link. Critics of the project claim it could be a costly mistake.

Spending on maintenance, or changing how you use existing infrastructure – while less flashy – can be just as effective. For example, re-franchising and extending the East London Line into the London overground network dramatically changed transport provision in the area. The low-frequency commuter service was transformed into a high-quality local service by linking together two existing lines with higher frequencies, improving trains and upgrading stations. Huge value was created by changing how the line was operated, rather than building a completely new one.

Similarly, if maintenance spending is cut when budgets are tight, systems can degrade faster and fail earlier. The 2016 water crisis in Flint, Michigan is a prominent example of this. Cost-cutting led the city to switch the water supply to the Flint River in 2014. The river water was more corrosive – and a combination of deteriorating infrastructure networks and poor monitoring of water quality led to dangerously high concentrations of lead in the city’s water supply.

Infrastructure investment ≠ growth

Since the 1980s, governments worldwide have relied on the faulty assumption that infrastructure investment stimulates economic growth. The problem with this is that you can’t easily detect cause and effect – so it’s difficult to tell whether large-scale infrastructure investment actually causes growth. Statistical analysis of empirical studies between 1990 and 2012 found that, on average, the correlation between investment and growth was positive but small – and highly variable. The wisdom of making public investment decisions based on such evidence is questionable.

Instead, new research suggests that the link between infrastructure investment and growth actually hinges on the quality of government. Government quality is determined by several measures, including transparency, appropriate use of evidence and expertise and robust processes within institutions responsible for infrastructure investment. Data from EU regions showed that improvements in local roads was only connected to growth where government quality was higher. This strongly supports the case that it’s not how much you spend, it’s how you spend it.

Better pledges offer real results

To truly communicate the value of infrastructure spending, politicians should explain (and you should ask) how it will deliver real-world outcomes – say, by improving your daily commute to work. Or – even better – how it will improve the commute of the person who makes your coffee or cleans your office. After all, travelling to work tends to be more expensive, and take longer for low-income workers.

A bit of a drag. Image: Mister Wind-up Bird/Flickr/creative commons.

These days, one of the most important outcomes to consider is the impact that infrastructure has on the environment. To address climate change, sustainability should be a priority in any infrastructure policy. It’s important to know if energy is coming from low-carbon sources, and if new investments give people a chance to switch to public transport, walking or cycling, or promote the use of electric or low-emission vehicles.

Cities are a special case

In cities, infrastructure investment is affected by one issue in particular: if the property market is driven by speculative investment without proper provisions for affordable housing, infrastructure improvements, particularly transport, are likely to fuel that speculation even further. Those who benefit from better infrastructure will be real estate developers and any buyers who haven’t already been priced out of the market. If housing policy does not aim for equality, it is hard to guarantee that the benefits of urban infrastructure investment will be fairly distributed.

Infrastructure is often talked about in terms of the great feats of engineering such as Bazalgette’s sewer system and underground railway systems. While advances in engineering are impressive, the political importance of infrastructure projects lies in what purpose they serve – whether it is for the benefit of public health, getting to work or school, or reliable access to energy and telecommunications.

The ConversationSo, the next time politicians promise to spend big on infrastructure, it’s important to ask how it will improve quality of life, support economic development and maintain and operate the vital infrastructure we already have – as well as funding shiny new projects.

Jenny McArthur is a postdoctoral research associate in the City Leadership Laboratory: Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.