David Brooks wrote a column yesterday about the Obama’s infrastructure stimulus. On the face of it, Brooks makes a great point:

It would be great if Obama’s spending, instead of just dissolving into the maw of construction, would actually encourage the clustering and leave a legacy that would be visible and beloved 50 years from now.

To take advantage of the growing desire for community, the Obama plan would have to do two things. First, it would have to create new transportation patterns. The old metro design was based on a hub-and-spoke system — a series of highways that converged on an urban core. But in an age of multiple downtown nodes and complicated travel routes, it’s better to have a complex web of roads and rail systems.

Second, the Obama stimulus plan could help localities create suburban town squares. Many communities are trying to build focal points. The stimulus plan could build charter schools, pre-K centers, national service centers and other such programs around new civic hubs.

This kind of stimulus would be consistent with Obama’s campaign, which was all about bringing Americans together in new ways. It would help maintain the social capital that’s about to be decimated by the economic downturn.

But then you start think about how people got out there in the first place. The exurbs were built on a subsidy of cheap gasoline and easy credit. And the exurban pioneer is someone who refused to make the political and social compromises–public transportation, the competing claims of neighbors through taxes, and so on. That’s fine but now the exurban pioneer feels lonely and Brooks thinks we should be spending the infrastructure stimulus on projects to build communities out there.

But alas, there’s no evidence so far that the Obama infrastructure plan is attached to any larger social vision. In fact, there is a real danger that the plan will retard innovation and entrench the past. [ . . . ]

It’s also before the spending drought that is bound to follow the spending binge. Because we’re going to be spending $1 trillion now on existing structures and fading industries, there will be less or nothing in 2010 or 2011 for innovative transport systems, innovative social programs or anything else.

Before the recession hit, we were enjoying a period of urban and suburban innovation. We could have been on the verge of a transportation revolution. It looks as if the Obama infrastructure plan may freeze that change, not fuel it.

How the United States could live through the biggest boom ever experienced while simultaneously neglecting basic systems like electricity, roads and schools is a scandal that hasn’t been explained. Maybe part of the problem has been tax competition by communities trying to keep folks from moving away to new developments far on the edge of the city? Maybe it’s something else. But to complain about the missed opportunity of the infrastructure stimulus without taking a look at the massive misallocation of funds in the form of tax cuts and military spending on an unnecessary war would seem to invalidate the complaints.


This Old House
New York Times, December 9, 2008


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3 Responses to “Whose Infrastructure?”

  1. gringcorp says:

    I think the main reason for the poor investment that the US has made in infrastructure has been the mish-mash of ill-coordinated public and private entities which have assumed responsibility for development and operations of electrical and transport infrastructure. The power grid for instance, is in the hands of private utilities, public utilities, private specialist operators, not-for-profit regional transmission organisations, and member-owned co-operatives. The railways are split between private operators and public bodies such as Amtrak (private rail perators can say, with a straight face, that merely coordinating track work with public bodies amounts to an “innovative public-private partnership.”). Roads are usually maintained by state departments of transportation, unless they’re run by public toll authorities or, increasingly, private concession-holders. With such fractured ownership, paralysis in decision-making is always likely.

  2. Brendan says:

    The land development biz is complicated. But how we got to the point where we have these exurbs that lack services isn’t. Rural towns outside the city, which already lacked services, wanted a piece of the development action, and all of the tax money that came with it, and were willing to go into debt to get there. Developers wanted cheap land, so the marriage was natural. So some tract homes pop up, and services for the native rural residents improved. Water and sewer plants might get built, and a new grocery store coming to town means that the native residents don’t have to drive into town to get groceries anymore. In exchange you get an overburdened police force, more traffic trying to commute into town, etc. There are all kinds of trade-offs there, and who wins and loses totally depends on the perspective of individual residents; the shades of gray are endless. How we got there is the laissez-faire approach to government: what’s good for the smaller community might not be good for the bigger overall community. Most small town governments are looking out for their own needs far more than the needs of the region. Though many cities have some form of regional “authority,” they generally have little to no real power. Poor government structure, manipulative developers, simpleton town councils, naive home buyers all share the blame. The major planning problem is that incorporated areas have little power outside of their limits, so how can any community develop intelligently when it’s really made of of 50 different municipalities all with their own ideas of how they can get the biggest piece of the pie? It just becomes a race to the bottom. The bottom line is that bulldozing these outlying communities doesn’t make sense, so what’s the best approach to dealing with them now, and how can we prevent it in the future? It’s obvious that you’re going to need to throw money at the problem one way or another, and I don’t think it’s the president’s job to figure out this mess, it’s probably best to give the states the resources and mission goal and then let them deal with it. The president elect has more important things to worry about right now that are actually in his job description.

  3. constantnormal says:

    Amen. This is clearly a states’ rights issue. If there are any states’ rights remaining, that is.