Overselling America’s Infrastructure Crisis

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60 Minutes ran a segment last week called “Falling Apart” that was another alarmist take on the state of American infrastructure. I’ll embed here but if it doesn’t display for you, click to CBS News to watch (autoplay link). We’ve seen this story before. America’s infrastructure is falling apart and we need to spend many billions on upgrades, but politicians won’t agree because they are too craven. There’s some truth to this point of view. The problem is that it’s oversold using the worst examples. It also gives short shrift to the many infrastructure upgrades that we have been making. And it ignores how people and businesses make capital purchase decisions in the real world. First, I’m not surprised to see that 60 Minutes spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania. In my experience, Pennsylvania is in a class by itself when it comes to infrastructure. Drive something like I-70 from Washington to the Ohio state line and prepare to be appalled. Pittsburgh legitimately has a massive infrastructure maintenance overhang. Philly too. And much of the infrastructure there was under built to begin with. The Schuylkill Expressway goes down to two lanes each way, for example. Similarly, 60 Minutes is right about some of the obsolete bridges on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. They may have easily included other high profile embarrassments like LaGuardia Airport or Penn Station. Or they might have taken a look at state of decay of Rhode Island’s bridges. There are clearly some high profile legacy items that need to be addressed. But that neglects the other side of the coin, namely that there’s a ton of major infrastructure that has been upgraded. 60 Minutes includes some footage of Chicago. Clearly there’s a need for bigtime investment there. But in the last 20 years or so IDOT reconstructed completely many of the major freeways in the area like the Kennedy and Dan Ryan. The Tollway Authority widened virtually the entire system and implemented open road tolling, vastly reducing congestion. Similarly the CTA opened the brand new Orange Line, did major work to renovate the Green and Pink Lines, just did major infrastructure upgrades on the south branch of the Red Line, and expanded capacity on the Ravenswood. They’ve also gone from tokens and cash to electronic fare collection. At least one new commuter rail line was opened (the North Central line). The O’Hare Modernization program is underway with new runways already online and a significant reduction in congestion there. A new terminal was also built and the existing terminals given some refreshes. Is there a lot to do in Chicago? Undoubtedly. But let’s give credit for what has already been done. It’s the same elsewhere. Nicole Gelinas notes that New York has invested $123 billion in the transit system in the last 30 years. That’s not chump change. The third water tunnel is now online there as well. Indianapolis built an ultra-modern airport terminal complex that’s up to international standards. Many other airports like DTW, SJC, SFO, etc. have built major new terminals or seriously upgraded their acts. There have actually been a lot of investments in port infrastructure to get ready for post-Panamax ships. I’m told even Pennsylvania has done a good job of starting to address its infrastructure problems. The Philadelphia airport is actually quite nice these days, for example. So we’ve actually done a lot already that 60 Minutes doesn’t give us credit for. But what’s more, the presence of infrastructure that’s at or near the end of its useful life isn’t necessarily a bad thing anyway. Would it make sense for every single car on the road to be brand new? Of course not. Most cars ultimately end up getting driven till the wheels fall off. And that makes perfect sense. Why would you junk an asset that still has lots of service life left? We reallocate ownership of a lot of those cars during their lifespan, but we try to get the max out of their useful life. It’s similar in our homes. How many of us replace a furnace at the first sign of rust? Yes, sometimes we do a complete upgrade or refresh of a kitchen or bathroom, but most of the time we don’t replace major household systems like furnaces or roofs until they appear to be at a point where paying for repairs when they break appears to be futile in light of the asset age. It makes sense to pay $400 to replace a starter that fails when the car has 125,000 miles. It’s more questionable when the transmission goes out at 175. The fact that some issues or incidents with infrastructure can cause temporary closure or disruption is exactly how most personal capital assets work. A part goes out on our car. It needs to be towed and fixed. And it’s out of commission during that period. That’s annoying, disruptive, and costly. But does it mean that we should all go out and buy a brand new car? I don’t think so. And that’s certainly not how people behave in the real world. Obviously you have to build in a margin of safety on items like bridges where a failure would be catastrophic, but the same general principle applies. We shouldn’t wait for them to fail before replacement, but we do and should get the full useful life out of them. Why would we expect our government to spend our money on its capital assets in a manner differently from how we spend our money on our own personal possessions? This explains why the public is much more skeptical of spending on infrastructure than the infrastructure lobby would like. It’s to be expected that some percentage of our infrastructure will perpetually be at or near end of life, as that’s the nature of the capital asset life cycle. What’s more, when we replace a furnace or car, most of us don’t go out and buy Cadillacs. We buy something that fits the budget. Unfortunately, this mindset doesn’t seem to penetrate the public sector, where a significant amount of infrastructure is gold plated and priced at a level far out of line with international comparisons. The big problem in New York isn’t a lack of investment in transit. It’s the fact that the region has just about the highest transit capital costs in the world. Wonder why Madrid and Calgary have nice train systems? Among other reasons, they were very cost-efficient in their design and construction. Rather than more money, maybe we should first try some reform in our broken system of building stuff that results in lengthy project timelines and out of control costs. So there are some things that need to be taken care of and we need to do that. But scaremongering about dangerous bridges isn’t the right answer. And where I see the biggest infrastructure needs are on local streets and bridges, where federal and state dollars are least likely to be applicable. It’s no surprise to me that most of the pothole ridden, bombed out streets we drive on are local city streets, where they are the maintenance responsibility of an entity that lacks the large, dedicated infrastructure revenue streams available to the state and federal governments. But that’s a topic I’ll have to explore in a future post. Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

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