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Aug 22 2014


The Springfield Monorail: How not to build infrastructure

August 22, 2014 | By

Public Policy Lessons from The Simpsons #1

In a recent Mowat Note, we laid out a framework to get infrastructure investment decisions right. We can also learn from those who’ve gotten them wrong.

Remember that time the Town of Springfield bought a Monorail that didn’t work? In a much-loved episode from Season 4 of The Simpsons, “Marge vs. the Monorail”,1 the town’s citizens are convinced by a smooth talking salesperson named Lyle Lanley to invest an unexpected windfall in a Monorail public transit project. Lanley turns out to be a fraud, and shoddy construction leads to a dangerous malfunction during the train’s maiden—and only—voyage; the project was literally a runaway train.

The overall contours of this story echo all too closely Toronto’s own public transit discussions today. A populist movement presses for investment in a shiny transit project that offers perceived convenience over pressing needs (in the case of Springfield, repairs to Main street). It even features a poorly understood surface rail technology.

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The story is presented as a classic misguided “white elephant” infrastructure project. In the show, the voice of reason (AKA Marge Simpson) compares it to other misguided Springfield projects that lacked an evidence base, like the “Popsicle Stick Skyscraper,” the “Giant Magnifying Glass”, and the “Escalator to Nowhere”.

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It is understandable that Marge comes to the conclusion that the monorail fits into the same category as those other vanity projects, but we should be careful about taking the wrong policy lessons from this episode.

In principle, a monorail (or comparable surface rail) transit system is arguably a quite reasonable idea for Springfield. The town has a diverse economy, features three Universities and a community college.2 It does not have the population density to justify a much more expensive option like an underground subway.3 The town’s citizens are all too-reliant on cars, which is bad for the economy and their environment. Springfield is likely to have a lousy Walk Score, so investing in public transit might respond well to these economic, environmental and public health challenges.

In principle, a monorail (or comparable surface rail) transit system is arguably a quite reasonable idea for Springfield.

The problem with the decision to invest in the productivity-enhancing monorail was not the choice itself, but the way the decision was made, and the way the project was managed.

Here are four lessons that we can take from Springfield’s mistakes:

1. Think and plan long-term

Springfield’s problems with the monorail started even before their financial windfall, when they failed to develop any long-term plans for their infrastructure development and how to pay for it.
The town should have had an investment plan on hand before Lanley burst through the doors of the town hall, one informed by professional economic analysis, urban planning, and engineering assessments. A catchy song and dance number does not replace the need for a plan.

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We have seen the consequences in real life when these plans aren’t readily available. Stimulus spending in Canada in response to the financial crisis of 2008 helped to get the economy growing in the short term, but it did not necessarily deliver the best projects for our long-term needs.

Planning long-term means taking into account trends that could affect future needs. Springfield didn’t give a moment’s thought to whether the monorail would meet demographic changes, align well with emerging technologies or be resilient to climate change.

Springfield didn’t give a moment’s thought to whether the monorail would meet demographic changes, align well with emerging technologies or be resilient to climate change.

2. Due diligence and contract design are essential to managing Public-Private-Partnerships

Springfield clearly did not follow best practice in terms of project management and governance. They didn’t seek other bids. They didn’t do any background research on Lanley and his company (a simple phone call to Brockway, Ogdenville or North Haverbrook would have ended the project). Perhaps most egregiously, Lanley was paid in full before the system had been tested, violating one of the most important principles emerging in the management of infrastructure projects, namely transfer of risk from the public funder to the private sector builder.

Springfield would have done well to call Infrastructure Ontario or other experts for some advice. If they had used best-in-class approaches, including releasing payment only once the provider has hit clear targets and milestones on time, then citizens might have been better able to monitor where their money was going. They might have ended up with some functional transit infrastructure—or at least still be in possession of a good portion of their investment when Lanley failed to deliver.

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3. Planning your infrastructure investment well matters for other aspects of the economy

The infrastructure investments we make matter a great deal for our economy in a variety of ways—increasing employment, improving productivity, making our cities more sustainable and connecting our communities to each other. The way we manage these investments can have a major influence on the degree to which these investments benefit the community.

Springfield failed to recognize this, and was worse off as a result. For example, the core of Homer’s training as a monorail conductor consisted of “mono=1”. Not only was this disastrously dangerous from a safety standpoint, it represented a lost opportunity to build a skilled labour force and diversify an economy heavily dependent on the local nuclear plant.

Integrated infrastructure planning, as part of a larger economic development approach, can pay dividends well-beyond short-term employment growth. A skilled labour pool, the growth of global firms in asset management and building companies, and the development of scientific and technical tools that can address other societal challenges are just some of the economic development opportunities that emerge when governments undertake their infrastructure planning in a way that is integrated with other policy and program considerations.

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4. Infrastructure investment shouldn’t rely too heavily on local government

When Springfield decided on the monorail project, they should have opened a conversation with their state and federal governments to get contributions from the senior governments in the federation. They may have been able to pay for both the transit investment and the much-needed repairs to main street. Relying too heavily on the local property tax base—even when supplemented by the occasional windfall—is not a good way to pay for a community’s infrastructure needs.

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In Canada too, subnational governments carry the bulk of the investment burden, regardless of ability to pay. In Canada the federal government is responsible for about 12% of total public infrastructure investment, with provinces and local governments picking up the rest.

State and federal governments could have also brought Springfield together with neighbouring municipalities—even forcing Springfieldians to sit down with rival neighbours in Shelbyville to work out integrated regional transit planning and cost sharing. Integrated planning across various jurisdictions is likely to produce better, more efficient and more affordable transportation networks.

5. [A bonus lesson] Donuts—is there anything they can’t do?

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Noah Zon

Related research

Rebuilding Canada

This Mowat Note examines public infrastructure investment in Canada today. Canada has a historic opportunity to rebuild our 20th century nation-defining infrastructure for the 21st century.
View this paper

More related to this topic

  1. Consistently rated as one of the best in the show’s history, it was written by none other than Conan O’Brien. He has mentioned it as the favourite episode he ever wrote for the show. []
  2. []
  3. A Season 21 episode shows a now-abandoned subway system, while by Season 25 the town has a heavily overbuilt and little-used subway network. []