Some transit or rail spending can,
of course, promote efficiency and productivity …
By Joel Kotkin
It’s the new buzzword: infrastructure.
President-elect Barack Obama has promised billions in infrastructure spending as part of a public works program bigger than any since the interstate highway system was built in the 1950s. Though it was greeted with hosannas, his proposal is only tapping into a clamor for such spending that’s been rising ever since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and a major bridge collapsed in Minneapolis last year. With the economy now officially in recession, the rage for new brick and mortar is reaching a fever pitch.
But before we commit hundreds of billions to new construction projects, we should focus on just what kind of infrastructure investment we should — and shouldn’t — be making. More important, we should think beyond temporary stimulus and make-work jobs and about investments that will propel the economy well into this century.
After all, it’s not that we stopped spending on infrastructure over the past decade. It’s that mostly, we haven’t spent on the right things.
New York City, for example, has wasted billions on its bloated bureaucracy and on constructing new sports stadiums and other ephemera deemed necessary to maintain Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “luxury city.” Meanwhile, many of its subway and rail lines have deteriorated. Over the decades, brownouts and blackouts, caused in part by underinvestment in energy infrastructure, have become common during periods of high energy use in the summer.
Similarly, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has extolled the Golden State as “the cutting-edge state . . . a model not just for 21st-century American society but the world.” Yet California’s once envied water-delivery systems, roadways, airports and schools are in serious disrepair. Many even more hard-pressed communities — Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans — have similarly wasted limited treasure on spectacular new convention centers, sports arenas, arts and entertainment facilities and hotels while allowing schools, roads, ports and other critical sinews of economic life to fray.