Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Why America Can't Build New Infrastructure, Continued

Mark Dunkelman thinks the reason nothing can be built in America is a reaction by progressives against the sort of neighborhood-bulldozing projects epitomized by Robert Moses and the freeways he build around New York:
Since the mid-1960s—really since the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island—no major new piece of public infrastructure has been built within the five boroughs of New York City. 
A few things have been built or rebuilt, says , but
those changes are a pittance of what New York once built year upon year, and just a fraction of the public infrastructure a booming city demands. The subway system is falling apart. Entire neighborhoods are transit deserts. Century-old tunnels that connect New York and New Jersey are beginning to fail.

Why aren’t there new subway lines connecting impoverished corners of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens? Why does freight traveling from New Jersey to Long Island travel by truck across Manhattan and not by rail? Why does the Port Authority Bus Terminal languish amid calls for an upgrade? Why does luxury housing sprout like weeds while institutions that serve the middle and working classes are left to languish? Why, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a letter to Gov. George Pataki in 1995, does it seem as though America has “lost the touch for famous things”?

Penn Station, like so much of the region’s infrastructure, remains in tatters today not because men like Robert Moses are no longer on the scene, but because the system in which Moses operated has been replaced by an entirely new, and remarkably dysfunctional, architecture. Beneath America’s deep frustration with government is something else: a deep-seated aversion to power. Progressives resolved decades ago to prevent the public from being bulldozed by another Robert Moses—and the project to diffuse power to the public has succeeded. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The left’s zeal to hamstring government has helped to burnish the right’s argument that government would mess up a one-car parade. The new protections erected to guard against Moses’ second coming have condemned new generations to live in civic infrastructure that is frozen in time.
My experience working on major highway and transmission line projects tells me that this is partially correct; it is hard to build things because we have made the system more democratic, and people don't want anything built near their homes. To build any new project -- for example, Delaware SR 1, the limited access highway from I-95 to the beaches, or the major power lines I worked on up and down the Appalachians -- takes decades of high-level political pressure.

But Dinkelman overlooks other parts of the problem. One of these is that any major infrastructure project attracts dozens of add-ons only tangentially if at all related to the core proposal -- for example, utility upgrades, improvements to nearby roads, beautification of nearby eyesores -- which lead to more delays and higher costs. I suppose this could be another facet of the same problem, that is, since it is so difficult to get any infrastructure project built, people try to attach their own pet projects to one that looks like it might actually be funded and pushed through. But it is one reason the cost of so many projects balloons, which is a major factor driving public cynicism.

There is also money. The cost to build any new infrastructure in the US is higher than in Europe or Japan, far higher for rail projects. The badly needed new rail tunnel under the Hudson River is projected to cost $5.5 billion, a figure that led Governor Chris Christie to kill it the last time it came close to approval. (In a good example of my last point, the tunnel had at one point gotten folded into a complete redo of transportation routes across the whole region with a price tag of $14 billion.) The years of delay created by weak political authority do contribute to higher costs, but this is a mutually reinforcing relationship, in that high costs give stakeholders another reason to oppose building. Cost in itself really is a problem; California would certainly build its high-speed train line if they could afford to.

But anyway Dinkelman's essay is a great look at one part of a very serious problem we face, and which I think feeds the overall cynicism and negativity of the American scene.


G. Verloren said...

We have a military that costs more than the next TWELVE most expensive militaries combined, but we can't finance our infrastructure?

We're willing to spend over $1 trillion on destroying Iraq and Afghanistan, creating power vacuums, and destabilizing both regions for effectively zero actual gain, but we're not willing to invest in our own cities, improving our own quality of life, and boosting our own economy?

This country is absolutely headed the way of the USSR - insane military spending at the expense of unmet civilian needs; intractable foreign wars that accomplish nothing and damage international relations; a deep and ugly divide between young and old, urban and rural, corrupt ultra rich and disenfranchized poor, etc, etc.

America isn't quite doomed just yet, but it's firmly on the path to a bad end. Maybe we'll manage to succeed with our own forms of Glastnost and Perestroika, suited to deal with our own kinds of problems. Or maybe we won't. But the clock is ticking.

David said...

If one can judge from Robert Moses, those grand infrastructure projects tended to be driven by the titanic narcissism of one or a few leading personalities--and modern liberalism, IMHO, has developed in part precisely to curb the power of such people. That is certainly part of what feeds my own liberalism. But that only explains why brand new infrastructure projects are so few these days. The flip side is that repair and expansion projects, like building a few new lines to serve poorer neighborhoods, were rarely the sort of thing that attracted such personalities, even when they had free reign. It's just hard to imagine a driven narcissist (of the sort that even I would have to admit is often necessary to get things done) fantasizing, "I know, I'll repair all the tunnels across the East River! Then people will learn to remember and respect the name of Jack Jones!" (or whatever).

The "why don't we do great things anymore?" crowd are not looking for a bunch of repairs.