Infrastructure Thoughts

I’m very sympathetic to Brooks as to the kind of infrastructure development we’d like to see in the future, but I’m imagining a liberal reader thinking, “Wait a second. So the Bush White House allowed basic infrastructure to deteriorate — Minnesota bridge collapse anyone? Levees? — and now Obama wants to spruce things up and make long-term investments in energy efficiency, and you want to take some time to conjure up an elaborately networked system attuned to the urban future? I mean, come on …” In short, Brooks is totally right, but a good first step is plucking low-hanging fruit, a notion I’m obsessed with in large part because I haven’t been eating enough fruit. I worry that I’m going to become jaundiced or something.

The beauty of a Sadik-Khan is that she comes from local government, and she has a sense of the flexibility that states and cities need. There was this little report on Mesa, Arizona in the last Economist.

Mesa’s “do-over”, as Mr Smith calls it, will take place south-east of the existing city. The land annexed this week is owned by a single developer, DMB, allowing for a unified vision. The opportunity to construct a new city centre is rare, and Mesa will become a test of modern urban design. It is looking both to the future and a long way into the past.

The forward-looking part of the plan is that Mesa will be built around an airport. Rather than pushing air traffic to the fringe of the city, as most cities try to do, Mesa will build around its runways. It hopes to become what John Kasarda of the University of North Carolina calls an “aerotropolis”—a city as tied to air traffic as 19th-century cities were to railways.

Let a thousand flowers bloom! Actually, we can be a little more focused than that, as Alex Tabarrok suggests. Tabarrok name-checks my current favorite Democrat, Peter Orszag.

The first thing people think about when someone says “infrastructure” is roads and bridges. That’s unfortunate because we already spend over $100 billion a year on transportation infrastructure and the truth is we don’t need that much more. Peter Orzag, President-Elect Obama’s choice for OMB estimated – when Director of the CBO – that an additional $20 billion in spending, mostly to maintain current transportation infrastructure, would achieve 83% of the net benefits to be had from more transportation infrastructure spending. Moreover, in many cases, congestion pricing would be both greener and more efficient than greater spending. A better program would be to follow Germany and several innovative state programs to get congestion pricing using GPS technology up and running, especially for trucks.

I love this idea — heavy vehicles on the Henry Hudson Parkway have a disproportionate impact. Some of these amazing GPS-based systems in Germany and Switzerland also help minimize the numbers of trips made by empty trucks, thus enhancing efficiency and (I think) making the roads safer for everyone.

Tabarrok goes on to emphasis the importance of investing in the energy grid, which makes sense to me. The beauty of this meltdown: we will have to get pump-primingly creative. But it’s not like we have a lot of money to waste. Even Dubai is freaking out.

Really, I just want lots of vertical farms.