Too Much Infrastructure?

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This topic contains 4 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  mary guercio 3 days, 6 hours ago.

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  • #2947

    Daniel Farina
    Participant

    A while ago, I came across this thought provoking article and web site. His gist: America has too much infrastructure. Basically, there is a lot of it that was not built conservatively, because we failed to account for maintenance costs in full:

    https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/3/20/failure-to-act-like-professionals

    Surely some of it is profitable to repair, but there may be a reality that our ability to give world-class infrastructure and ever-rising living standards to sparse modes of living Cannot Be Done, either financially or environmentally.

    Coming from software engineering and the corporate world, this is an entirely believable sensibility. It requires immense and often unpopular restraint to avoid having a software artifact or organization lose all of its time to maintaining previous bad investments. Accretions almost never get a high-quality accounting of ongoing costs, and it is thankless and painful to reverse that accretion.

    The author pins, in part, enormous amounts of dead space as the problem. However, building things so far apart is quintessentially American, and very much Trump’s America. It may not be possible to publicly finance further increases in living standards in this density: as-is, the author’s argument is that it is unsustainable.

    A fascinating case study: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/9/the-real-reason-your-city-has-no-money

  • #2957

    Creigh Gordon
    Moderator

    The article is a mixed bag. Mr. Marohn is certainly right to be skeptical of the ASCE’s numbers, and in hindsight we’d probably have different infrastructure than we have, in a significant number of cases. In hindsight I’d do a lot of things differently too, but I try not to dwell on that. Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.

    What I find problematic is his contention that infrastructure should yield revenue streams that pay back the initial cost and cover maintenance. Infrastructure should pay for itself in cost avoidance and other benefits, certainly. Those can be harder to quantify than a revenue stream. Transportation systems are supposed to make commerce cheaper and more efficient, and leisure more accessible. A sewer system is supposed to prevent us from dying of cholera. Flood control structures are supposed to keep water out of our homes. None of these projects should be expected to produce revenue.

    Some infrastructure could be privatized, in situations where toll booths can be set up. Most infrastructure doesn’t lend itself to privatization, and the record of privatized infrastructure isn’t great either (do you like your cable provider?). I’m guessing that short-termism would be at least as bad on private projects as it is on public ones.

  • #2960

    Daniel Farina
    Participant

    If I remember his writing correctly, the sense in which infrastructure should yield revenue is you shouldn’t build so much that property taxes, or whatever revenue stream is used to finance it, are entirely consumed to do a necessarily crappy job on the cheap. He calls this “serving the infrastructure” rather than the other way around.

    I don’t think infrastructure privatization is among his platform ideas.

    Not the same author, but this was an interesting review of a place I used to live: 24th Street in the San Francisco Mission. https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/11/16/viva-24th-street. It was one of my favorite places to live as a younger person.

    But, as a wrinkle to this glowing review, I’ll say: I live a basically healthier, cheaper life driving to Costco than I did piecing together groceries, meats, and household goods in the Mission. This is not entirely a fair comparison, as I am also now part of a family unit. I can’t say I share this blog’s strong aversion to bigness in this regard, though I admit Costcos are, basically, dead-zone warehouses, and you do not need so many of them.

    • #2971

      mary guercio
      Moderator

      I grew up in Lafayette, LA. Lived there until 1995. 52 years. I have a lot of thoughts about the points the author made but lack time to do so fully right now. I’ll get back to you. Suffice it to say, that Lafayette was built by realtors. The old saying “you can’t get there from here” grew up in this city. It’s a relatively small parish (most states use term “county”), and just about all decision-making is very local…local politics in LA is a real life experience.
      Suffice it to say that this little city survived by having a strong college (now university) and building a medical center. It also had a wealthy, forward-thinking Jewish man who saw the energy sector as an opportunity to replace the land he owned.

      I’ll share a story about a road, a bridge, and a development in Lafayette, that took almost 20 years to culminate, razed 90 homes, and put the capital projects budget into the red for ions to come. Why? There was a big piece of property owned across the river that would generate lots and lots of money for a lot of local people and some sales tax and property taxes, too. It’s too long to tell now but I’ll get back to you. I know many of the people who were quoted…and a lot who should have been. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Strong cities indeed.

  • #3027

    mary guercio
    Moderator

    Politico has been doing in person interviews in a report entitled “What Works” in various areas of the U.S. that voted for Trump. One of those areas was Johnstown, PA, which, like many rust-belt cities, has struggled to survive. Politico’s piece focused on a small group of citizens for the interview and the conclusion was “We support Trump no matter what”.

    However, in a very refreshing, very well articulated response, the leadership of Johnstown responded forcefully and positively to Politico, which they printed in full. It is a great read, and a wonderful story about how cities in decline can recover if everyone pulls together. We need more stories like this.

    https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/11/15/johnstown-pennsylvania-response-politico-article-215827

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