American Elephants


Why Is Infrastructure Always “Crumbling?” by The Elephant's Child

President Donald Trump announced a $1 trillion infrastructure plan at the State of the Union speech on  January 30. But he had earlier revealed a price tag of $1.7 trillion at a meeting with about a hundred mayors of major American cities. The mayors were excited. Mr. Trump said he wanted all of the projects funded by his plan to be “on time and under budget.”

My question was “what is infrastructure?” Are we talking about the power grid? Concern about EMP attacks? The interstate highways? Airports? The president was complaining about our airports back during the campaign. What infrastructure is the responsibility of the federal government and what is the responsibility of the states or those cities? When thinking about “infrastructure” do people think beyond their own familiar potholes?

Why does it always come with the modifier “crumbling”? We have all sorts of big projects going on all over the country to improve transportation, or other things one would probably identify as “infrastructure”— California has a big high speed rail to nowhere that just keeps costing more and more and going nowhere, that nobody seems to want except Jerry Brown.

We have Light Rail here that nobody wants and seems to be a massive boondoggle. It is building across a floating bridge, and nobody seems to know if that will work. They have added what we call “Lexus Lanes” to the freeways where you have to pay a hefty sum to use them and that has screwed up traffic in the rest of the lanes. Our traffic is nothing to write home about. (Better they should have given trucks and buses their own lane.) In DC I think I read that freeway tolls are over $40  for a single trip. No wonder they are back to talking about flying cars.

Obama was going to accomplish great things with his infrastructure project, but he ran into the “shovel ready” problem, and he simply did not know or understand the problems with permitting and environmental regulations, how long they took and how involved they were. The  Transcontinental Railroad took railroad companies six years to lay 1,907 miles of track, tunneling through mountains at one foot a day, building bridges, all mostly by hand.

California’s bullet train is still slowly building and the new deadline is 2025 for high speed rail from San Francisco to San Diego. The old deadline was 2018, but the first leg will only run from  Madera to Shafter, a small town north of Bakersfield. This was the most “shovel ready”stretch when the Obama administration was passing out stimulus funds. The original plan was for 800 miles of high-speed rail up and running by 2020. It will be only very slightly faster than an airline flight if its ever finished. The project’s lead just announced another $2.9 billion increase in costs for the first 119-mile stretch, mostly for land acquisition. Voters approved the project back when it was estimated to cost $40 billion, and a one-way ticket from San Francisco to LA  was expected to be $55. The most recent estimate is $64 Billion and they are talking about routing it through Silicon Valley for obvious reasons.

Elon Musk is still messing around with his hyperloop project, with some success with his models. His greatest expertise seems to be his ability to get governments to subsidize his ideas. Across the country, many cities are engaged in big transportation projects, and I don’t have an impression of many successes.

I went to Google to see what I could find about Obama’s stimulus,  the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). In general, Democrats thought it was a great success, but were a little thin on explanations of what it accomplished. Since I’m a right-leaning crank, I consulted the Hoover Institution and John B. Taylor and John F. Cogan explained that “more than $1 trillion in federal-deficit spending did little or nothing to help the economy, because it was used to pay down debts and reduce borrowing.”

At Fox News, John R. Lott said that “the states hardest hit received the least money. States with higher bankruptcy, foreclosure and unemployment rates got less money. And lower-income states also received less. It looks like Democrats ended up helping their supporters, including unions and many very wealthy supporters.”

It’s easy to get politicians all enthusiastic about big projects that can crown their term with achievement. Think about Eisenhower’s transcontinental highways, or Hoover Dam. It’s very tempting. Obama’s high speed rail fantasy has led to Jerry Brown’s train to nowhere and apparently to the deadly derailment we just had down by Tacoma. It involved a new stretch of track that bypassed an existing rail line. The train was doing 80 mph when it hit a curve engineered for speeds of 30 mph.

“My high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America,” Obama boldly proclaimed at the time.

Washington state, however, eagerly took the stimulus money and promised to use it to speed up service between Portland and Seattle on Amtrak’s Cascade line.

One of the big projects — which consumed $187 million — went to build a 14.5 mile high-speed bypass between the cities of DuPont and Tacoma.

The stimulus was advertised as financing “shovel ready” projects, but work on the bypass did not begin until 2013, 5 years after the end of the recession.

President Trump is probably better prepared than most presidents to deal with big construction projects. He understands the hazards and the hubris, and knows what is involved. I’m willing to be convinced.

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