Showing posts with label Infrastructure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Infrastructure. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Our Decaying Infrastructure

The following is such an important, well-reasoned article that I am “republishing” it in my blog (by permission), something I’ve never done before.  It encapsulates some of what I’ve written about our infrastructure over the years. How do we, as supposedly a First World country, tolerate a transportation system that is definitely Third World?  It is all part of kicking the can down the road (no pun intended), with no agreement on an overarching plan.  It has become ingrained in our politics, the one of “I got mine, you get yours.” Our transportation “system” has become an expression of individualism and class warfare.  

True, there are vast geographic differences between our country and those in Europe and much of Asia which have vastly superior public transportation.  The automobile is still part of the key in traveling in less densely populated places (nonetheless we are also allowing our bridges and roadways to crumble).  But the woeful transportation options in our cities and their adjacent environs -- and this especially true for virtually the entire Northeastern corridor -- is just inexcusable for a country of our resources.  It is also goes against the environmental grain – the need for carbon emission reduction.

It is not sufficient to merely duct tape our failing infrastructure; we need a plan and a commitment.  This would create jobs as well.  Do we have the right stuff politically?  I commend this article from the blog “The Conversation” and hat tip to Barry Ritholtz for bringing it to his readers’ attention:

Why is the U.S. unwilling to pay for good public transportation?

John Rennie Short, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Officials in Washington, D.C. said this week they may have to shut down portions of the Metro subway system for months because its piecemeal approach to maintenance is no longer sufficient.
The disclosure follows a shutdown of the entire Metro system on March 16 for 24 hours. Three-quarters of a million people use the system each weekday, so the inconvenience and cost were considerable.
The reason: frayed electrical cables discovered in at least 26 locations that posed an immediate danger. Closing the Metro was probably the safest thing to do.
Just two days previously, an electrical fire in a tunnel forced stoppages to busy commuter service. In September 2015 a train was stuck inside a tunnel, and passengers choked for over an hour as smoke from a fire was accidentally pumped into the train. One woman died. In the last six years 15 people have died in seven separate incidents.
A system that opened to such fanfare in 1976 is now crumbling. It is a depressingly familiar story that is not limited to urban public transport. The U.S. has a major and growing infrastructure gap – though chasm is a more appropriate metaphor.
The quality of a country’s infrastructure is directly linked to its competitiveness because it makes businesses more productive and improves the quality of life. Why has the U.S. let its public transit slip so far?

From First to Third World

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s infrastructure a D+. Its report from 2013 depicts a woeful tale of deferred maintenance. More than 70,000 bridges are in need of repair. We need around US$1.7 trillion for our surface transportation alone.
The week that the D.C. metro was closed, I was in Zurich, Switzerland. The contrast could not have been starker. There, a ticket is good for rail, bus and tram. It is clean and efficient, a widely shared experience and a deep source of pride. Most people in the country use public transport in the cities to get around. It is a vital part of urban public life.
In international comparisons, the U.S. is falling further behind. To fly from either Seoul or Shanghai into Los Angeles airport is to make the journey from a First World to a Third World airport. To fly into New York’s JFK from Zurich or most European capitals is to fly from the future into the past.

For people coming and going to Dulles – the main arrival point for international travel – there is no Metro rail station, which would shield travelers from road traffic. Sean_Marshall/flickr, CC BY-NC

And when you arrive in Los Angeles or New York City airports, the public transport connections are often nonexistent or inadequate. If you fly into Dulles, the main international airport for D.C., you will wait in vain for a train to the city (although buses are available). The Metro has yet to link the city to the airport, 40 years after the system opened.
Now Switzerland, which ranks at the top globally for overall infrastructure, may be a reach for the U.S. But when the U.S. ranks 16th for infrastructure quality, easily outranked by countries such as France and Spain, then we should start worrying.
There are substantial costs to the decline of our public transportation system. Closures, accidents and inefficiencies cost individuals and companies and reduce the efficiency of our national economy. Poor infrastructure means Americans spend $120 billion each year in extra fuel and lost time.
To some extent, this state of affairs should be no surprise.
Our competitors are out-investing us in the vital infrastructure necessary to make our economy efficient and internationally competitive. Even when our public infrastructure spending is higher than our competitors, it is less well-targeted because decisions are more politically motivated than based on economic rationality.
We seem unwilling to pay for public services. Our declining road system, for example, is funded by the Highway Trust Fund, which is derived from a gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. It has not been raised since 1993, and more fuel-efficient vehicles means less revenue. Raising the gas tax is not considered politically feasible, even in a time of declining gas prices.

What went wrong?

At least four reasons can be cited for the decline in the quality of urban public transportation.
The first is the early and continuing embrace of the private car as a form of urban transport. In Europe, expensive gas and restrictive land use measures kept people in dense cities, and urban growth followed along the lines of mass transit, reinforcing and consolidating their use.
In the U.S. growth spread across a landscape of freeways and motorway exits, encouraged by federal investment in the national highway system in the 1950s. As low-density suburban sprawl spread, public transport became less viable. New suburbs and Sunbelt cities constructed in the last half of the 20th century were built around the private automobile.

Encouraged by the construction of the highway infrastructure, Americans moved out to the suburbs and started to rely more on cars, rather than public transit, to get into cities.

Over time, Republican-dominated suburbs came to see mass transit as a special Democratic interest and voted accordingly. For example, the mayor of Nashville’s plans for public transport last year were blocked by state politicians and right-wing national interest groups.
Second, as cities were designed to meet the needs of the motorist, mass transit systems that had been owned by private companies were abandoned or effectively dismantled in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s because they were losing money.
As a result, many mass transit systems were taken over by municipalities. This led to a high-cost, low-revenue system dependent on the vagaries of federal, state and city funding. Meanwhile, car drivers were economic free riders, not charged for the social costs of their accidents, pollution and congestion.
The third reason is that all infrastructure ages and needs costly maintenance and continual improvement, yet funding is often constrained.
Even when new transit systems were built, such as in D.C., or existing ones were upgraded, as in New York City and Boston, they still had to be maintained, which takes up large chunks of public money without the benefit of a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Building something new gives politicians a photo opportunity, replacing a frayed electrical cable does not. And there are many other claims on government such as pensions, schools, Social Security and a large military. Our infrastructure chasm is a quiet, slow-moving but relentless crisis only brought into focus when wires fray to the point of immediate danger.
Across the country, transit systems have a backlog of deferred maintenance. Chicago Transit Authority, for instance, spent $5 billion on infrastructure upgrades in the past five years, but needs another $13 billion. Cities in the U.S. have a repair backlog that amounts to $86 billion.

Private affluence and public squalor

Fourth, there is a deeper tension in the U.S., first noted by economist Kenneth Galbraith, between private affluence and public squalor.
Many of us, it seems, have lost faith in the public realm. The private car is the embodiment of U.S. individualism. The decline of our cities' infrastructure is one expression of loss of faith in the public realm as a place of beauty and efficiency and an embodiment of what one journalist refers to as “our anger and our pessimism.”
This thinking has made our cities less about shared experiences and more a place of different lives and separated spaces.
There is some room for optimism. A series of reports highlight the advantage of investing more in public transport. And as more people want to live in cities in dense walkable neighborhoods, the demand for public transport is increasing.
Ridership rates vary by city and with the price of gas, but the overall usage trend is upwards. The top 10 transit systems carry 12.6 million people each workday.
And millennials lack their parents' and grandparents' love affair with the automobile. We may be at the cusp of a generational shift in attitudes to the car and mass transit. Cities and cars were never a good fit, something more people appear to be realizing.
Urban public transport may come to be seen as a more desirable, more sustainable, more equitable way of getting around the city. If only we can remember to ensure we have enough money to replace those electric cables before they pose a serious danger.
The Conversation
John Rennie Short, Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Hopalong Cassidy America

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times, to paraphrase Mr. Dickens.  Technologically speaking, it is wondrous.  As a kid our Philco radio (which was actually a piece of furniture) brought me into the world of the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy, graduating to a big Dumont TV (well the cabinet was big but the screen minuscule), where I could finally see my cowboy heroes (that’s me in my Hopalong outfit).  We had a party line telephone and had to wait for our neighbor to get off their call to make a call.  No dialup. You spoke to an operator to make a call, and telephone numbers began with a word, in our case “Virginia.”  When dialup arrived and party lines disappeared, the first two letters of the word preceded the number.  I still remember ours: VI-6-3134.  Unthinkable, making or taking a call from a tiny device on your wrist, or from one hanging on your belt, or in the comfort of your car  This was the stuff of science fiction, although it was commonly thought that by the 21st century everyone would be driving flying cars.

This time of innocence was belied by the increasing tensions of the cold war with regular air raid drills in school, hiding under our desks as the shades were drawn to thwart the effects of a Russian nuclear attack.  We thought of it as protection, but it was part of the propaganda, that the threat of a sudden attack was real and we shouldn’t worry, the government would somehow look after us (e.g. the drawn shades).  The McCarthy hearings and communist witch hunting were just part of the scheme to whip up fear to justify the investment in a giant nuclear arsenal.

Back then, though, there was the rise of a real middle class, the American dream realized which started with the GI Bill after WW II.  Hard work really did pay off then, and company loyalty and affordable housing abounded, although other social issues lagged, in particular; racial equality, long held prejudices were still ingrained in our institutions. 

Fast forward to the present with the wonders of technology which have changed our lives, and have given promise to a future of driverless cars, robotic assistants, and the colonization of planets (we’ll have to eventually get off this one).

Mankind seems hell bent on destroying those future benefits.  Imagine, the reality of global warming still being questioned, politicizing the very existence of our species (quick get me to Mars where I can feast on potatoes, but please don’t run out of ketchup : - ).  Even if we agree to solve this primary issue, we still have a dysfunctional government which cannot agree on matters of gun control, a decaying infrastructure (see anecdotal photos below), reeducation of the depressed middle class to replace their disappearing factory jobs with those in the technology, health, or service sectors, and how to properly deal with terrorism and immigration policies, income inequalities, and that is but to name a few.

The ingredients seem ripe in the forthcoming Presidential election for the tipping point into downright dystopianism, the stuff of fiction until now, 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Clockwork Orange, and The Road.  I think of the latter two in particular in relation to what is already happening in Michigan, the Flint water fiasco, and the condition of the Detroit public schools. 

Read David Brooks' insightful piece in a recent New York Times editorial in particular his comments on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz: Worse is the prospect that one of them might somehow win. Very few presidents are so terrible that they genuinely endanger their own nation, but Trump and Cruz would go there and beyond. Trump is a solipsistic branding genius whose “policies” have no contact with Planet Earth and who would be incapable of organizing a coalition, domestic or foreign. Cruz would be as universally off-putting as he has been in all his workplaces. He’s always been good at tearing things down but incompetent when it comes to putting things together.

Imagine if Bernie Sanders does beat Hillary Clinton and Trump or Cruz wins their party’s nomination.  I don’t think this nation is ready to elect a Jewish politician who has socialist leanings.  And of course Clinton has her own issues so she isn’t a shoo-in.  Maybe the Democrats at the last minute can draft Al Gore who won the election in 2000 if it was not for the Supreme Court? : - )  (Parenthetically what would our world look like now if Gore was allowed to win?  Would 9/11 still have happened?  Would we have gone into Iraq?  Would there have been better controls over bank risk taking which might have at least mitigated some of the 2007 collapse?  More progress on reversing global warming?).  Or, as Michael Bloomberg recently hinted, perhaps he’d run as an Independent if Sanders gets the Democratic nomination and either Trump or Cruz runs as the Republican nominee.  But that would further split the progressive vote, making the Republican candidate a more likely winner even with a minority of the popular vote. (As a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, I’d support Bloomberg.)

So, if we find ourselves a year from now waking up to a President Trump or Cruz, would we, as Brooks contends, be in a position of having a new President genuinely endangering our own nation?  A self-aggrandizing, poll spouting, reality TV star (to watch Trump squirm as Sarah Palin rambled on invectives and gibberish would be as funny as Tina Fey portrayed, if it were not so tragic – that’s what our political system has come to: reality TV star endorsing a reality TV star), or a borderline fascist, a real tough guy (his persona reminds me of Senator Joe McCarthy in many ways) who as Supreme Court Clerk, made the death penalty his cause  and who would carpet bomb the sand of the Middle East until it glows in the dark.  

Either Cruz or Trump might have us strapping on guns as our “Constitutional right.”  And if everyone was so armed, shouldn’t it be a safer America, where we can shoot the “bad guys” and “stand our ground?” Hopalong Cassidy America!  

Decaying 120 Year Old Norwalk Ct Amtrak Swing Bridge

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

It’s Come to This

I’ve passed through Baltimore more times than I care to count but never toured the city.  I know the Baltimore portrayed by Anne Tyler, a place of comfy familiarity. She must be appalled about what’s happening in Baltimore, although it is not surprising. Racial riots and tensions are not new in America.  It is reminiscent of the 1992 Rodney King riots in L.A. which followed the acquittal of police officers after a police brutality incident was caught on video tape.  But that was a “one off” capture of an incident.

What is new is the widespread use of cell phone, surveillance, and dash board cameras that reveal the everyday nature of the problem.  Twitter and YouTube deliver the message to a nation crazed for user-generated content.  The more we see, the more inured we become to the root of the problem, racial and economic division. 

Meanwhile media firms are pouring endless money into creating “shows” designed to be watched on ubiquitous mobile devices, the holy grail of streaming Internet firms such as Netflix.  We’ve become a nation of somnambulists, cynical about the political process (ironically revealed by Netflix’s House of Cards – does life imitate art or vice versa?). According to a study done two years ago, “by 2015 Americans are expected to consume media for more than 1.7 trillion hours, or an average15.5 hours per person per day, again not counting workplace time. 

2015 is now. My wife recently boarded an aircraft from Atlanta and most people were watching videos on their laptops or iPods or even cell phones and although anecdotal evidence at best, many were of interactive games or slam-bang explosive Hollywood films.   Imagine, most of your waking hours consuming media of this nature?

What happened to reading?  Same answer as to what has happened to education.  As long as we put a premium on consuming video content while minimizing education, there really is no answer to the racial and economic tensions that will play out in the future.  Along with rebuilding our infrastructure, and our inner cities, education must be this nation’s highest priority to provide opportunity where people feel there is none. Better police tactics are needed, and research and education is required there as well.   No wonder there is such despondency.

Easier said than done naturally, and having a dysfunctional government is not helping. As presidential electioneering gets underway the failings of the whole process will become even more apparent, thanks to Supreme Court sanctioned unlimited campaign contributions by corporations and individuals: its a few mega billionaires and corporations vs. the rest of us. 

And it’s come to this in Baltimore today: the Baltimore Orioles will play the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium -- our National Pastime with no spectators allowed because of safety concerns. Eerie symbolism of things to come? Is that how we want to live our lives? 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Infrastructure and Politics Redux

Inevitably, this headline  -- Probe begins after Conn. commuter trains crash -- will lead to the conclusion what any rider of the New Haven Railroad could tell you:  the tracks are in need of serious upgrade.  Yet, investment in the railroad's infrastructure is one of those things that is constantly postponed -- until a tragedy occurs, and this could have been a much more serious accident with loss of life in addition to the injuries.  But making this expenditure is a political hot potato, no one wants to take on.  Again, until.....
Fact of the matter, not only do the tracks need upgrading, the entire system -- which to a degree is still mired in its late 19th century beginnings -- needs to be addressed, bringing public transportation for the heavily populated northeast corridor into the 21st century.  We are a third world country when it comes to such transportation -- ask anyone from China or Japan who visits and rides those rails.  And, with easy credit and the need for jobs, it would seem to be a no brainer to make this investment, but do we have the vision and determination?

Meanwhile, on the Florida political front, an apparent self-serving decision by Governor Rick Scott: to deny the ability to build a warehouse in the State as it would appear that he (the Governor) is supporting an Internet sales tax and he wants to be perceived as being against tax increases. Consequently, the Governor has given tacit approval of the commonplace practice of avoiding the payment of "use tax" on such purchases, a law already on the books.  In rejecting Amazon's application for a warehouse in the State, he is also foregoing more than a thousand new jobs, an initiative that was the centerpiece of his election campaign.  No surprise, he is up for reelection next year, and being perceived as a champion of tax avoidance now seems preferable to job creation.

And speaking of things that never seem to change, the Mourning Doves (or their descendants) that have made their nest year in and year out underneath our roof eaves have two new chicks and here mommy is feeding one of them. They are messy nest makers and it is amazing they don't all fall out.