President Trump’s proposed trillion dollar plus infrastructure program represents a rare, and potentially united feel good moment. Yet before we jump into a massive re-do of our transportation, water and electrical systems, it’s critical to make sure we get some decent bang for the federal buck.

In principle, improving our physical connectivity should improve the economy, particularly in more rural areas where moving goods is often challenging. Modernizing our dilapidated waterways, protecting coastal cities from floods, preparing better systems to store water as well as fixing the roads and eliminating traffic bottlenecks are genuine priorities.

Yet, as can be seen by examples from Japan, infrastructure development can also create boondoggles that enrich vested interests but not spur economic growth. Like a child in love of shiny things, politicians tend to embrace infrastructure not so much for its efficacy, but to advance their careers and political agendas.

What can go wrong?

To see how bad decisions can be, look at California, a state which once led in economically critical infrastructure but now striving to present the worst possible example. Over the past two decades, California has become among the states least committed to new infrastructure, despite absurdly high tax levels. And when the spigot has been turned on, it’s been largely to socially engineer people from roads, which provide nearly all trips, to transit.

The losers here are Californians, with massive spending on transit rail rejects people cannot use, while the roads they depend on are among the nation’s worst. Less than 2 percent of the state’s motorized travel is on transit and ridership is declining. Worse, transit provides little mobility compared to cars. In the largest California metropolitan areas, the average worker can reach 65 times as many jobs by car as by transit in 30 minutes, even with our traffic congestion. No wonder that poorer people in Los Angeles are increasingly buying their own cars, a development that UCLA researchers acknowledge is valuable, but then express the view that “driving is too cheap” in a state with high gas prices and an excessively high cost of living.

Rather than improve mobility, Gov. Jerry Brown has obsessed on a high-speed train with costs more than twice original projections, yet, with now slower travel times. This vanity project could place enormous strains on the state budget, while doing little, or nothing, to reduce greenhouse gases. Prominent Democrats, like Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, have turned skeptical while the liberal columnist George Skelton has uncharacteristically suggested Brown’s legacy could well end up as a “boondoggle bullet train to nowhere.”

Two essential elements: Localism and a fix on the future

Given these experiences, the president and Congress need to correct the enormous distortions that now bedevil infrastructure investment. Federal incentives tend to favor massive spending on mass transit, which, although useful for commuting to a few large downtown areas, have proven ineffective in terms of improving mobility or attracting drivers.

In fact, none of the rail systems has managed to make any sort of dent in car use, since 2000, the increase in workers driving alone has been more than 15 times the increase in those using transit. Los Angeles has experienced a considerable decrease in overall transit ridership. Transit’s share of work trips has stalled in such diverse markets as Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and, remarkably, the transit mecca of Portland. Meanwhile, instead jumping on trains, as widely predicted, 30-something millennials are buying cars in huge numbers, heading towards the suburbs and starting families. Road travel this year hit a record, as it has the last five years.

Ironically the biggest losers may be the transit-dependent. Spending federal money is about the only reason to build trolleys like in Santa Ana. To spend $300 million on 19th century, 15 mile per hour technology in economically challenged areas to spark new growth, strains credulity. With the highest nation’s housing adjusted poverty rate, California transportation focus should be spending to increase access to jobs.

Borrowing from Nixon

One approach may be to borrow a page from Richard Nixon’s “new federalism.” Simply give a grant to a state, or locality, and let them figure out what works best for them. Some federal capital funds could be converted to “block grants.” In New York, subway maintenance may be the priority; in burgeoning Charlotte, Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston, express buses, encouraging home-based work and subsidized dial-a-ride offer more efficient, and less costly, solutions.

Other funds could be used to increase opportunities for people. The balance of the federal capital funds could be block-granted to expand inner city labor participation rates and employment, such as ride-sharing schemes or for programs to assist working families obtain cars.

These approaches might encourage states and localities (even California) to experiment with new technologies and approaches Including experiments with schemes private and jitney lines and, in the not too distant future, autonomous vehicles.

New infrastructure investment needs to be approached in a rational, and location specific, manner aimed at genuinely improving people’s lives. That’s what federalism does at its best, and gives the country competing visions as to what works — and, equally important, what does not.

Originally published in the Orange County Register.

Cross-posted at New Geography.