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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

May 8, 2014 at 10:34 AM

The infrastructure mess

The Times’ Jim Brunner wrote an insightful article earlier this week about the connection between the region’s infrastructure projects and political gridlock in Olympia. The state faces $21 billion in unfunded highway, ferry and transit projects. Bus service could be cut 16 percent. And opposition is stoked by foul ups, such as boring the $3.1 billion Highway 99 tunnel and pontoon cracks on the $4.3 billion Highway 520 floating bridge.

The numbers seem impossibly large. But consider that merely building the Interstate Highway System cost nearly half a trillion dollars in today’s dollars. Dwight Eisenhower’s baby was built with little opposition, even when freeways were rammed through priceless historic neighborhoods of cities and added costly sprawl. Project Apollo, which landed men on the moon, had a price tag of $253 billion. Most Americans were enthusiastic supporters.

One is tempted to say that Americans used to do great things and can’t any more. Even the replacement for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was made in China.

It’s true that powerful right-wing organizations are anti-transit — the Koch brothers even funding a fight against a bus line in Nashville. Also, many Americans alive today benefit from the infrastructure laid down from the New Deal on, with nary a thought of the struggles involved — perhaps they think elves built it for free. Yet another element is that many American infrastructure projects cost more than they should.

But we’re falling behind advanced nations. Europe and now China have abundant high-speed rail. In some European countries, high-speed rail is so popular that private companies are jumping in to compete against state-owned rail operators (although in most cases, even with airlines, no transport system works without overt or stealth subsidies, even highways). America is struggling to even build higher-speed rail. If Republicans gain control of the Senate, look for an attempt to defund Amtrak (but not the Military Industrial Complex or big ag and fossil fuel subsidies).

The American Society of Civil Engineers, which grades America D+, estimates that $3.6 trillion in investment is needed by 2020. Thanks to austerity, it is not happening. National infrastructure spending has plunged, even when it would be the most reliable way to provide jobs and ensure a return in productivity and competitiveness that outweighs its costs. As Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt notes, America is stuck with a mid-20th century transportation system.

The same is true for much of the Puget Sound region. Such a populous place can’t depend solely on single-occupancy car trips to move people. All the way back to Robert Moses, it has been shown that mindlessly widening and extending freeways only adds to congestion.

And yet Atlanta has our subway (thanks, 1960s voters) and light rail is moving painfully slow. On the road transport front, failure to address key projects is hurting our trade competitiveness. And the anti-light-rail fetish of the right, manifested in the failure of the Columbia River Crossing, is toxic (memo to Vancouver, Wash.: “Those people” don’t take transit; they have cars).

Another issue: What gets counted. Infrastructure projects can seem costly, especially in a slow economy when the middle-class is hurting, where we blew a trillion dollars in Iraq and got nothing. What is rarely penciled out are the economic and social benefits, as well as the opportunity costs of doing nothing. Also, the costs in carbon emissions and lost farmland from continued sprawl.

For now, much of America is stuck. So Bertha is not alone. The price tag for doing nothing keeps rising.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Yellen on the Hill

Years to shrink Fed’s balance sheet

If nothing goes wrong




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