Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Op-ed in N.Y. Times: Things Fall Apart: Fixing America’s Crumbling Infrastructure 

Nicholas Kulish of the N.Y. Times has an interesting op-ed about infrastructure in the United States, and the need to repair and renew and upgrade it. Unfortunately, the op-ed is in the TimesSelect (pay) part of the N.Y. Times Web site, so I can provide a pointer to it, and some of the better comments here.

Things Fall Apart: Fixing America’s Crumbling Infrastructure $

From the article:

Whether it’s the roads we drive on, the pipes carrying our water, or the power lines humming with the electricity that lights our homes, America’s physical networks are falling apart.

That’s bad news for those of us spending hours a day in traffic caused by road-repair bottlenecks, or sweating through prolonged summer blackouts. But it’s also a substantial drag on our economy and on our businesses. And it will be a competitive challenge for this country in the years to come.

Infrastructure — the catchall term for the backbone of our nation — is the kind of word that makes taxpayers want to roll over, hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. We ignore it and only complain when something breaks. No dummies, our lawmakers react accordingly. They approach the underpinnings of our nation’s future like school nurses, applying the equivalent of Band-Aids and aspirin.

This problem goes well beyond southern Louisiana. Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers grades the nation’s infrastructure. The group looks at 15 categories, from aviation to bridges, from waste water to public parks. Last year they handed out a D, down from the D+ in 2001. The report noted different problems in every sector, but a few kept popping up almost across the board: A growing population, and growing demand that is overtaxing aging, inadequate systems.

In some ways, America’s low-grade infrastructure is to be expected. Much of the physical stock we rely on today was built either under the public works programs of the Great Depression or in the boom following World War II. For instance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act on June 29, 1956, making our interstate highway system 50 years old this summer. It may be happy birthday for the highways, but it’s sad news for the drivers.

In 1982, the average American could expect to spend 16 hours a year staring at brake lights and bumper stickers. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, that figure rose to 47 hours by 2003 (pdf), the most recent year for which figures are available. The institute calculated that during those two days of traffic jams drivers burn 2.3 billion gallons of gasoline in their idling vehicles. The total cost of all this congestion is $63.1 billion a year.

These nightmare commutes are not caused only by bad infrastructure. In this age of the exurb, people are moving ever further out from cities and job centers for a variety of reasons, including soaring home prices in cities and older suburbs. But the time Americans are spending with their foot on the brake is a good indicator that America’s physical plant is not in good working order.

Of course, our goal should be more than just keeping up. If America were a company, and it refused to invest the necessary money on new technology and an improved physical plant, it would become less competitive, slipping further and further back until it went out of business. America won’t go out of business, but if it wants to remain a leader in the global economy, it has to act
like one.


That means not just fixing the roads we have, but investing in better ones. We should be building smart roads that give advanced navigation systems up to the minute information on traffic and accidents. (Yes, we could do better than those electronic “traffic ahead” billboards that are occasionally deposited on highway shoulders.) Once adopted, intelligent transportation systems would help drivers use the roads effectively, rerouting as traffic patterns change. California already has pilot programs for so-called variable pricing of tolls. In the San Diego area, drivers on I-15 normally pay anywhere from 50 cents to $4 for driving in special fast lanes, depending on the time of day. New Yorkers are talking more about “congestion pricing,” which would provide a financial disincentive for people to drive into midtown Manhattan. The possibilities — not with future inventions but today’s technology — are boundless.

One of the biggest factors in America’s infrastructure decline is politics. Because there is no national vision of how money should be spent to upgrade America’s physical plant, the money that is allocated for it is being spent piecemeal on dubious projects. Money gets doled out in earmarks that are stuck into budget bills by congressmen looking to win favor back home. A $223 million bridge to nowhere in Alaska is not the right way to spend America’s limited infrastructure funds, but if the senator presiding over the allocation is an Alaskan who wants the bridge, it may end up being how the money is spent. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, roughly $1 out of every $14 from last year’s highway bill was earmarked for special interests — $20 billion out of a total $286.4 billion.

Capital projects are among our most important priorities, but they are also tailor-made for ribbon-cutting ceremonies and other photo opportunities. “If you’re a member of Congress and have an Army Corps of Engineers project, you can point to it,” says David E. Williams, vice president for policy at CAGW. “You can say, ‘I did that for you.’ That’s why infrastructure pork is really so popular.”

But average citizens are far from blameless. The reason congressmen love to bring home pork to their districts, in the form of dubious government projects, is that their constituents love them. Voters need to make clear to elected officials that genuine infrastructure improvement is a priority.

We also need to move beyond the "not in my back yard" mentality, which blocks worthy infrastructure improvements. There is a great deal of consensus that the electrical transmission grid is overtaxed and new power lines are needed, but try finding property owners willing to take the new power lines nearby. The nation should be rallying around alternative energy as a way to cut our fossil fuels addiction. But when a site is proposed for building a wind power project off the coast of Massachusetts near Martha’s Vineyard, or in other affluent vacation areas, there is a stiff breeze of opposition.

Comments:
From the article:
>>>>>>That means not just fixing the roads we have, but investing in better ones. We should be building smart roads that give advanced navigation systems up to the minute information on traffic and accidents. (Yes, we could do better than those electronic “traffic ahead” billboards that are occasionally deposited on highway shoulders.) Once adopted, intelligent transportation systems would help drivers use the roads effectively, rerouting as traffic patterns change. California already has pilot programs for so-called variable pricing of tolls.<<<<<

Excuse me but all this sounds very expensive. In fact, I can see my taxes going skyrocketing for these new technological "PORK" projects when none of them are proven to work.

The only system that has proven to eliminate traffic is a surcharge on the motoring public. That's all. Make it expensive to drive and the public will go elsewhere or use public transportation (ex. lightrail).
 
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