Today I would like to connect infrastructure improvements to both jobs and social interactions.

With all the talk of the thus-far jobless recovery, investment in transportation and other infrastructure may never be more important.  We have shipped so many of many of our manufacturing jobs overseas, and that has dramatic consequences because the people who used to have those jobs are not trained to suddenly take desk or service jobs.  However, construction and its related needs–such as concrete production–cannot be shipped overseas.

Bob Herbert noted the tremendous importance of infrastructure in America historically and the incredibly important role it will play in the American future.  He stated the obvious, that we have neglected our infrastructure for too long and that if America is to thrive once again it will be on the back of dependable infrastructure:

We used to be so much smarter about this stuff. A recent publication from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution reminds us that:

“Since the beginning of our republic, transportation and infrastructure have played a central role in advancing the American economy — from the canals of upstate New York to the railroads that linked the heartland to industrial centers and finally the interstate highway system that ultimately connected all regions of the nation.

“In each of those periods, there was a sharp focus on how infrastructure investments could be used as catalysts for economic expansion and evolution.”

Policy makers all but gave up on that kind of thinking years ago. America’s infrastructure, once the finest in the world, has been neglected for decades, and it shows. Felix Rohatyn’s book on the subject, “Bold Endeavors,” opens with: “The nation is falling apart — literally.”

It’s almost as if we no longer understand the crucial links between infrastructure and the health of the American economy, the state of the environment and the viability of the nation as a whole. We’ve become stupid about this.

While it is a tangential connection, I would like to suggest that building improved transportation infrastructure is also important for the social capital of this country.  We are becoming increasingly disjointed and independent, living in digital social realms and within cubicles that frequently separate us from each other, getting to work individually in cars.  It is rare outside the sporting event and church that we feel immersed in communal space and the larger venture that we acknowledge as society.

Slate recently wrote about social interactions on the subway and how people react to certain requests, such as the ability to take a seat.  There is a certain etiquette to traveling on public transportation, and admittedly different rules for different modes in different places.  However, it is amazing how the little things of seeing people of different socio-economic status, age and ability is of great value to our sense of place and understanding.  Moreover, transportation is the great uniter.  Working for the MBTA this past summer, everyone always reacted to my experience with a story or notion about public transit.

Getting people out of their cars and into shared spaces is an important element of reuniting a divided society and to do it we need to invest in infrastructure, one of the keys to jobs for people of all talents and classes, going forward.

Damian Ortega, False MovementShana Tova loyal Transit Pass readers.  I welcome you all back and wish you all a happy and healthy new year.  In Sunday’s New York Times, long-time columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the necessity of a hike in the gasoline tax.  Friedman challenges the masculinity of the nation, saying essentially that even the French have more courage to confront their problems than we do.

But are we really that tough? If the metric is a willingness to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and consider the use of force against Iran, the answer is yes. And we should be eternally grateful to the Americans willing to go off and fight those fights. But in another way — when it comes to doing things that would actually weaken the people we are sending our boys and girls to fight — we are total wimps. We are, in fact, the wimps of the world. We are, in fact, so wimpy our politicians are afraid to even talk about how wimpy we are.

Friedman goes on to say that America needs a gasoline tax because it would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, spur energy innovation and investment in alternative energies and improve some of our foreign policy issues (and, oh, people might drive less).

Such a tax would make our economy healthier by reducing the deficit, by stimulating the renewable energy industry, by strengthening the dollar through shrinking oil imports and by helping to shift the burden of health care away from business to government so our companies can compete better globally. Such a tax would make our population healthier by expanding health care and reducing emissions. Such a tax would make our national-security healthier by shrinking our dependence on oil from countries that have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs and by increasing our leverage over petro-dictators, like those in Iran, Russia and Venezuela, through shrinking their oil incomes.

Friedman and I differ on how to spend the money from a gasoline tax.  He would use most of it on the defecit and healthcare.  I would put a gasoline tax toward improving our transportation infrastructure.  However, that’s small chickens compared to the notion of actually having a gasoline tax.

Americans, since the advent of large road building projects and the AAA and truckers’ unions have depended on largely free roads.  Of course there is no such thing as a free road, it gets paid for somehow.  But Americans have never really had to think hard how their roads get paid for.  On the other hand we’re all too well aware of the cost of public transportation, in the form of a fare.  But roads don’t have fares largely, it’s just pay the cost of a car and the gasoline and go driving. There aren’t even significant car taxes or licensing fees to pay for the upkeep of roads.  We like our big government, just not paying for it.

However, a gasoline tax is incredibly important, if for no other reason than we need to wean people from gasoline and cars because they will eventually be largely unaffordable if we keep driving at our current pace.  The whole notion of auto-based cities and suburbs and sprawling exurbs need to become ideas of the past.  The car cannot and should not be eliminated, but this country needs to emphasize the urban, and the car is not a significant part of our urban future.

There is no debating that our country is growing; the US census estimates there will be 392 million people in the country by 2050.  Those new people have to live somewhere, and the formula of quarter acre lots in the suburbs is not sustainable.  We should not and cannot raze the suburbs, but we can make sure that our cities are beacons for the next generation.  In order to do so the transportation networks must be better, more thorough, reliable and affordable.  A gasoline tax would go a long way towards helping to create those necessary infrastructure improvements.

One final thought, how about tax breaks for car sharing?  If the idea is to get people to drive less and own fewer cars, what better way than supporting car sharing systems with essentially subsidized gas?

abandoned railroad

The New York Times published an article on the decaying infrastucture in Russia, in particular The Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam in Siberia.  While the United States does not have infrastructure falling apart in the same way, the I-35 W bridge tragedy in Minneapolis last year awoke the American conscience to the necessity of infrastructure upkeep and its costs.  As we go forward with infrastructure investment in the 21st century and debate what means transportation are best and most economically efficient it is important to keep in mind the cost of maintenance going forward.  The cost of transportation infrastructure is not truly depicted in the cost of construction, maintenance costs occur every year.

America has the twofold problem of historically not calculating the cost of maintenance when building transportation infrastructure and frequently choosing to build the cheapest option, which of course also usually deteriorates fastest.  While Stephen B. Goddard’s references in his 1994 book, Getting There,  are slightly dated, he also describes an awful lot of the infrastructure in this country:

In a nutshell, the Europeans build their freeways thicker and with a deeper base than in America.  Washington also gives states an incentive to neglect maintenance by paying 90 percent of the the cost for new roads , yet nothing for their repair.

In America the lowest bidder usually wins a highway contract, which removes incentive for innovation.  And neither are contractors held responsible.  When in 1991 Congress considered a bill requiring contractors to build to performance standards, the measure had the support of Washington’s highway establishment, state officials, and advocacy groups; but the Transportation Builders Association lobbied successfully for Congress to kill it.

I am not suggesting that the U.S. is in danger of approaching Russia’s level of difficulty.  Rather, all I am suggesting is that as infrastructure debates go forward we examine the total cost of a system; the cost of maintenance, operation and construction.  When we examine the cost of infrastructure on construction estimates alone we are practicing negligent economics.  A road that must be rebuilt every 20 years is not actually as cheap as it first looks.  We should invest more money up front to make our investments in infrastructure last.  In addition, a change in federal procedure would benefit all, if allocations for transportation funding included commitment to upkeep of new infrastructure, for at least a period of time.

Sprawl

Edward Glaeser posted his last essay in a four-part series on the economics of high speed rail in the Economix blog of the New York Times.  Like other transit bloggers, I have not been fond of Dr. Glaser’s work thus far and have been highly critical of his essays on this blog.  He seems to have responded to the criticisms by providing the work of many other economists to support his work and concluded that he will be back (for better or worse) in three weeks to revisit some of his assumptions and discuss rail links other than one from Houston to Dallas.

Glaeser’s most recent essay focused on urban sprawl and what he perceives to be the lack of significant savings.  However, just because Glaeser seems to provide more empirical support for his most recent essay does not mean that his latest rant is any more intellectually responsible or well-thought-out.  Glaeser points out both that the populations of Houston and Dallas may grow and are potentially mobile.  If these are true infrastructure will need to be built.

Population growth requires investment in infrastructure, both for transportation and utilities (including water, electricity, sewer and telecommunications).  Glaeser’s approach to estimating costs is ridiculous because he makes rail justify itself as opposed to performing a comparative study.  Of course high speed rail is expensive, there is no arguing about.  High speed rail may even lose money.  So what?  Is it more cost effective than building new roads?  Is it more effective over the long term when upkeep is factored in?  He answers none of these questions.  Rail does not exist in a vacuum, it is an option that needs to be weighed against the cost of roads and expanding air travel.

Perhaps Glaeser has never really traveled to Houston or Dallas, but speaking from experience, neither city really has a dense residential core.  Both cities depend on growth at the fringe with new housing projects representing population expansion.  These projects are far more costly than the cost of housing may reflect.  There are real and environmental costs to building on land that is currently undeveloped.  There are intense water issues in Texas regarding both supply and drainage.  There is the cost to the land of covering it in houses and asphalt.  There is the cost of having to build new infrastructure in the cost of expanding the reach of social services or even developing new governments and school boards of new suburban towns.

High speed rail will not immedately bring people back to the city.  Glaeser is correct that having a downtown high speed rail depot is not likely to make people live people downtown or in the urban core.  It’s the same as people in Manhattan being willing (begrudgingly) to trek out to LaGuardia.  However, the development of inter-urban high speed rail with downtown departure points spurs the development of further urban public transportation that encourages people to live and work in the urban core.  This is what prevents urban sprawl.  Sprawl is not going to be discouraged by high speed rail alone, new transportation infrastructure throught a city will, and high speed rail can be a critical component.

Sandhogs

While stories of public transportation accidents, like ones recently in Washington D.C. and Boston garner a lot of attention, we rarely give the same respect to construction workers who labor in dangerous conditions to provide the infrastructure we take for granted.  The business of building infrastructure – transportation related or not – is frequently hazardous, whether it is tunneling under ground, blasting through mountains, laying track next to operating trains or paving highways while cars drive by.

The Boston Globe recently ran a two-part series (part 1, part 2) on events in a tunnel at Deer Island in 1999.  A team of divers was sent deep underground into a 9-mile tunnel to finish off part of a project to help restore Boston Harbor.  The pipe was to divert sewage so that the Harbor would once again sparkle with hues of blue and green.  The divers were to remove safety plugs from the ends of various pipes, in a place without human contact, air or light.  Two of the divers eventually perished in that tunnel, all in the name of improved infrastructure for a city.

Many workers risk their lives every day in order to push this and many other countries forward.  A sterling example are the Sandhog 2sandhogs in New York, who are working on a 50-year project to build a third water tunnel to Manhattan.  Like the divers in the Globe story, the sandhogs go beneath ground every day to bore through the hard Manhattan bedrock in order to bring clean water to New York.  As the 21st century goes forward and we build new transportation, hundreds of thousands of people will in some way contribute to the construction of new infrastructure, whether it is roads, wires, bridges, railroads or tunnels.  Every now and then, take time to step back and marvel at creativity and discipline in human labor that creates such massive projects that serve us every day.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.