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America’s Infrastructure Problem


A good summary of the lessons of the apparent failure all but some of the least useful parts of the proposed high-speed rail plan in California:

San Francisco and Los Angeles are the two largest cities in California, travel demand between them is massive, and they are an appropriate distance apart for a fast train to achieve a large share of the market. A reasonable concept would be to pick a train route between the two cities that’s the most cost-effective in terms of dollars spent per rider. Spend money, in other words, but only do so when extra money is likely to generate extra ridership — primarily by making the key connection as fast as possible.

But that’s not remotely what California did.

Instead, as Ethan Elkind, who directs the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment (CLEE) at UC Berkeley Law, wrote in 2014, a bunch of political considerations got in the way of that goal:

One of these compromises — taking a somewhat less efficient route through the Central Valley in order to hit more Central Valley population centers — was defensible on the merits, since hitting intermediate destinations increases ridership.
A second — taking a weird detour to Palmdale rather than going straight from LA to Bakersfield — was totally senseless, slowing down traffic at great expense purely to promote a single transit-oriented development scheme that happened to have sparked enthusiasm on the LA County Commission.
The third — which provoked endless fights among blog commenters years ago — was deciding to serve San Jose on the main line rather than with a spur, even though this cost more money while making LA-SF trips and trips from Sacramento to both Bay Area cities slower.

The key thing in all three cases was that the route adjustments increased the number of elected officials who could get “a win” from the project, at the expense of serving the project’s core function. As an economic development scheme for the Central Valley, you could make the case for this, but San Jose doesn’t need an economic development scheme, and the Palmdale concept is just a ridiculously petty thing to undermine a massive infrastructure project over. According to Clem Tiller, the Palmdale route made the north-south trip 12 minutes slower while costing $5 billion in extra spending.

Spending $5 billion on a transportation improvement is necessarily going to be a tough political lift. But spending an extra $5 billion to make the quality of the transportation worse is a disaster. The overall thinking was not that the core SF-LA project was so valuable that California should go do it. Instead, it was that the core SF-LA project was so valuable that it made the whole thing a “too big to fail” political juggernaut, which in turn led to some odd decisions about the order in which things would be done.


But the true privileged status of automotive projects in the United States isn’t the willingness to spend money on them; it’s the willingness to actually make drivers’ interests the priority.

I-5 out of LA toward Bakersfield takes the direct route that was rejected for high-speed rail. Forcing everyone on the road to detour east to Palmdale to promote local economic development would be unthinkable. When the government builds a road project, it tries to make it useful for road users.

Meanwhile, transit and rail projects are saddled with Buy America requirements that ensure they will support more jobs per dollar spent but purchase less transportation benefit per dollar spent. Banning the import of foreign cars and car parts would, obviously, create far more manufacturing jobs than doing the same for rolling stock — but making cars cheap is a policy priority, while making rail projects cost-effective is not.

This sometimes reaches absurd proportions, as with the burst of Obama-era mixed-traffic streetcar projects. These streetcars superficially resemble European tram technology, but unlike European trams, they mostly lack dedicated lanes to run in. Consequently, they tend to be not just more expensive than buses but slower as well, because unlike a bus they can’t navigate around obstructions.

Essentially every American city could improve its mass transit offerings at minimal cost by creating dedicated bus lanes on the busiest routes, but doing that would antagonize drivers, and the federal government offers no support for it (because, again, it would antagonize drivers).

You end up with a choice either to not spend money (the Republican vision) or to spend it in deliberately wasteful ways to create jobs.

New York City recently completed the most expensive subway project in the history of the world, a brief three-station segment of the Second Avenue line.

New York’s Upper East Side is so densely populated that even at the extraordinary cost per mile involved in this project, it’s a good idea. But the exorbitant costs have made it essentially impossible to further expand the project north into East Harlem and then crosstown on 125th Street, as in the original vision.

If New York were able to build subways at the kind of per mile prices achieved in Paris — about $230 million per kilometer on recent projects rather than more than $2 billion per kilometer for the Second Avenue subway — then New York’s current mass transit spending plans would be sufficient to expand and transform the system. But under the current dynamic transit planners can’t get much done.

The crucial underlying problem here is America’s fractured and extraordinarily high-veto-point system, which inevitably leads to substantial inefficiencies and inequities unless (as with roads) the support for them is extremely broad-based and the opposition very weak. Any remotely rational plan would have started with a San Diego-to-LA or an LA-Bakersfield-SF line and proceeded from there, but instead so many local interests had to be bought off that it became white elephant done in a completely irrational sequence, and collapsed. And that’s in one of the most favorable political contexts for such a project.

Another related problem is that NIMBYISM has a serious presence on the left, which can be seen in the fact that the Green New Deal completely ignores the critical need for upzoning and increased housing density. These are both very serious issues.

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