Twilight of Washington roads...
Twilight of Washington roads... Charles Mudede

Mike Lindblom, the Seattle Times transportation reporter, has bad news for our state. Its transportation network "is creaking under the pressures of age and economic growth." Drivers are using the roads more, there are more and more delays on urban roads, and "highway pavement is wearing out faster than the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) can maintain it." The thing that many Americans forget or seem to have never noticed, is that roads for motor vehicles are not cheap. Indeed, almost nothing related to cars is cheap: parking, accidents, carbon pollutants. This is why they made sense at a period of American capitalism when wages began to rise and taxes on the rich were high (1947 to 1970). The latter made them affordable to the working and middle classes, and the former provided the revenue for the construction of transportation systems. But in the age of tax cuts and budget cuts, cars and all that supports them can only become more and more onerous.

There is another aspect of the transportation infrastructure in this state and the whole of the US that I want to briefly discuss. The cost of maintaining a network with so many roads that are unproductive, that go to places few people and goods go to, and therefore constitute a huge subsidy for rural people in remote parts of the state and country, is just too much for a slow-growing and saturated capitalist economy to afford. One can understand the Keynesian logic for building so many roads in the '50s and '60s: they created jobs, stimulated regional economies with multiplier effects, and provided the government with politically popular fiscal expenditures during peace times. But once they were built, the main funding for the maintenance of this expensive infrastructure was revenue from economic growth.

This is the insight at the heart of Charles Marohn's essay "The Growth Ponzi Scheme," and his leadership of the Strong Towns movement. It's the "realization that the revenue collected does not come near to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure." Marohn's work mostly applies to suburbs, but it can also be expanded to include the nation's transportation network.

He writes:

In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the cost at $5 trillion—but that's just for major infrastructure, not the minor streets, curbs, walks, and pipes that serve our homes.

The problem is there is just not enough growth to justify much of this pricey infrastructure. And the only way out of this mess is politically unfeasible: increasing public yield. The rich don't want to hear nothing about that.

But the rich are very dependent on the current state of the car industry because it's one of the pillars of the stock markets. And, as we must never forget, the rich do not make money from making things anymore. They make money from dividends, buybacks, and price changes on the market. But the stock market, the source of much of their wealth, would crash like nothing before if cars stopped burning fossil fuels. In his short book Fictitious Capital, young French economist Cédric Durand writes:

The contemporary accumulation of fictitious capital on the stock markets is closely connected to the addiction to fossil fuels. Current market trends show capital’s projections for a future still based on carbon. Indeed, the hydrocarbon reserves claimed by the major oil companies very largely determine their valorisation, because they constitute the basis for forecasting future profits. However, according to IPCC estimates, if we are to keep the temperature rise beneath the 2°C limit, then we will have to leave somewhere between two-thirds and four-fifths of these reserves unused. Companies in the energy sector, together with those in the directly affected industrial sectors, represent close to one-third of worldwide stock-market capitalisation. Taking the political measures necessary to halt fossil fuel extraction would immediately result in a knock-on destabilisation of the financial markets.

Durand points out that Bank of England governor Mark Carney calls this the "tragedy of the horizon." But a Marxist would simply, and less poetically, describe it as one of the many contradictions of capitalist accumulation. The rich do not want to pay taxes to maintain roads, but they want consumers to burn the fossils that support the prices of the shares they own on stock markets.

And WSDOT’s highway-incident teams clear 58,235 fender-benders, objects and stalled cars within an average of 13 minutes—a service that prevents untold numbers of secondary crashes.