But ultimately the biggest issue hamstringing infrastructure at the moment is politics. Public investments, especially large ones, have been lumped in with the general sense of government malfeasance sweeping the country. Political distrust is at such high levels, elected officials cannot be counted on to build the country back up.
And yet the public should come in for their fair share of the blame as well. “Infrastructure is just not sexy anymore,” Mr. Deery said. “These things used to be brand new and shiny and cause a spurt of national pride. But rebuilding a bridge, repaving a road—that is vital but hardly inspiring business.”
The turning point that may well have soured the country on public investment may also have been the moment at which it was saved. The Surface Transportation Act of 2005 contained more than 6,000 earmarks, among them the reviled Bridge to Nowhere, serving 50 residents on Alaska’s Gravina Island at a cost of $398 million.
“There was a real backlash to that bill,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But in response, I think there is an understanding that the peanut butter approach, where we spread a thin layer of money across the entire nation, is not working.”
President Obama also comes in for a good deal of blame on this count. While the 2009 stimulus bill may have saved jobs, it did little to transform the nation’s infrastructure, because the projects supporting the jobs were shovel-ready. In other words, just another road-widening beside a strip mall. Yes, the Brooklyn Bridge was repaired, along with other critical pieces of infrastructure, but Havermayer’s grand invention has not changed travel patterns in the city since it was built.
“You have to view the whole picture, the good, the bad and the ugly, but what we don’t need anymore of is the token investments done just for the photo op ribbon cutting,” Mr. Lapatner said.
Mr. Chakrabarti of Columbia faults the president’s high-speed rail plan, which dedicated only $8 billion, spread across a few states (some of which rejected it). He argues there was an opportunity to do something truly bold, propose a $250 billion to $300 billion nationwide network that could have started a year ago. And don’t build Washington-to-New-York-to-Boston. “Do we really need a faster train to Harvard?” he said, arguing it was a city in decline. He prefers Charlotte-to-Washington-to-New-York, maybe a spur to Atlanta. The rights of way are cheaper and clearer. “And it would cross blue to purple to red states, maybe help knit this country back together,” Mr. Chakrabarti said.
“Some people just can’t be bothered to wait around,” Mr. Yaro said. He cites Denver, Chicago and of course New York as cities where local officials have all taken up the cause of public investment. Just this past election day, Texas and Arkansas voted to approve new taxes to invest in water and road infrastructure, respectively. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association tracks such ballot measures and has found between 60 and 70 percent success rates, which strongly suggests Americans want to invest in their infrastructure. It is the politicians who most often stand in their way, whether they are building the wrong projects or simply not building them at all.
It seems there are little Robert Moseses running around the country.
Brookings’ Mr. Puentes champions these efforts but says the biggest deficiency is a lack of a national approach to building. Rejecting peanut butter, America needs cookie dough ice cream—a lot of vanilla with chunks of goodness concentrated in the mix. Starting from the position that the nation’s wants to double exports, Mr. Puentes points to ports, rail freight and roadways as critical investments, which politicians should focus on, and wrest some control from states and municipalities when it comes to investments.
“Take the Bayonne Bridge in New York, it’s too low, and when they widen the Panama Canal, and the huge ships start floating up the East Coast, they won’t be able to fit under it,” Mr. Puentes said. “That’s not Bayonne’s problem, that’s the nation’s problem. Same thing in Detroit, there’s a bridge they want to build between there and Windsor, Ontario. It’s the largest bi-national trading corridor on the planet, critical to any conversation around exports and global trade. It’s Detroit’s bridge, it’s not a national bridge, but it’s still a critical piece of infrastructure. I’m not saying the federal government has to step up and make money rain down, but we have to figure out ways to address these critical problems.”
Environmental reviews could be streamlined and labor contracts modified, public-private partnerships may someday abound, but the fact remains, sometimes you have to just build.
Look at Boston, where the Big Dig is consistently held up as model of government overreaching and fecklessness. Initially estimated to cost $2.8 billion when it began in 1982, the project took a decade longer than expected to complete, and when adjusted for inflation, cost almost four times as much as planned. But it got built, Boston was stitched back together, with a nice park running through it and new development springing up on both sides.
The same thing goes for the pit formerly known as Ground Zero. It took five years longer than expected just to complete the memorial, costs are soaring for the PATH terminal, two of the towers may be decades away from completion. And yet when visitors began streaming onto the site on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, almost no one complained.
Sometimes you just have to sink that first stake.