Slick high-speed trains, imposing bridges, gleaming towers reaching towards the heavens–infrastructure in the 21st century has become a surprisingly sexy topic. While infrastructure projects are meant to solve mundane logistical problems, the sort of grandiose, white elephant undertakings that have been popping up all over China for the past decade can also serve as powerful symbols of national power. Here in the US, we have our own infrastructural challenges, but, as this smart article by notable urban economist Edward Glaeser notes, we need to stay focused on what really counts:
Infrastructure investment only makes sense when there is a clear problem that needs solving and when benefits exceed costs. U.S. transportation does have problems — traffic delays in airports and on city streets, decaying older structures, excessive dependence on imported oil — but none of these challenges requires the heroics of a 21st century Erie Canal. Instead, they need smart, incremental changes that will demonstrate more wisdom than brute strength.
According to Glaeser, that means focusing on intelligent reforms, rather than more spending. This is sensible, but it won’t be easy. Infrastructure is a stronghold of the crumbling Blue Social Model, and here at Via Meadia, we’ve been covering the runaway costs and questionable efficacy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Glaeser proposes dismantling this bloated Blue dinosaur, along with encouraging the use of buses in urban areas, shifting the cost burden of infrastructure maintenance from the federal government to those who use it, and focusing new construction on projects that will pay for themselves (perhaps with the help of public-private partnerships).
None of these ideas will make pulses race like a gleaming bullet train flying speeding up the California coastline. We would all be better off, however, if we could send the white elephants the way of the green unicorns and get back to focusing on what really matters: the dynamism and prosperity that has made the US what it is today.