Tag Archives: infrastructure

the Trump infrastructure bill

The Trump infrastructure plan has apparently leaked. The upshot seems to be that states and metropolitan planning organizations, among others, can submit projects to be matched at up to 20% by the federal government. Most of the selection criteria are based on making a strong case that there is a plan to come up with the other 80%.

This sounds okay, as far as it goes, and it might get some projects over the hump that would not otherwise get built. I like the idea that metropolitan planning organizations are eligible, because they are in the best position to look at a city’s needs as a whole, across fragmented political entities and across types of infrastructure. Cities are where people live, where most of the economy happens and taxes are paid, and where people are educated and given skills and where new ideas come from that make our lives better in the long run. What I don’t really like is that economic and social benefits are given only 5% weight in the selection criteria. And even then, they are considered for an individual project in isolation, in the absence of any larger plan. In my ideal world, planning organizations would have comprehensive infrastructure plans that look at all types of infrastructure together over the long term, even including green infrastructure, and really focus on maximizing economic benefits. This would allow us to prioritize individual projects in the larger context of how the whole socioeconomic system works and not just on one “project at a time.

Still, this might be a small step in the right direction. Along with public infrastructure and some small steps to encourage capital investment, research and development in the private sector, add serious programs to address education, job skills training, and research and development in the public sector and you would have the beginnings of a long term national economic plan. Maybe toss in a revenue-neutral pollution tax for good measure.

the unraveling of complex systems

This account of 96 terrible hours at JFK airport caused by terrible, but not unusually terrible, winter weather reminds us how unresilient our modern infrastructure systems can be, and how unresilient our under-maintained and investment-starved U.S. infrastructure is in particular.

By Sunday, after half a foot of snow, gale force winds, and three days of single-digit temperatures, JFK had set a new standard for air travel horrors: Travelers waited for hours or days for their flights, sitting on scavenged sheets of cardboard in their socks, fuming to nearby reporters and farflung Twitter followers. Outside, the scene was more apocalyptic. Aircraft crowded the tarmac, too many of them for the gates. Passengers were left in planes for as long as seven hours after landing. And that was a full day and a half after the cyclone bomb had dissipated.

we’re #1…in road deaths in the industrialized world

It’s not just health care costs, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, drug addiction and infrastructure. As more evidence the U.S. is gradually slipping behind the rest of the developed world in many areas, here is a New York Times article on how road deaths are worse here than our peer countries in terms of wealth. And not just western Europe, but again our close cultural and historical cousins like Canada and Australia.

It didn’t used to be this way. A generation ago, driving in the United States was relatively safe. Fatality rates here in 1990 were roughly 10 percent lower than in Canada and Australia, two other affluent nations with a lot of open road.

Over the last few decades, however, other countries have embarked on evidence-based campaigns to reduce vehicle crashes. The United States has not. The fatality rate has still fallen here, thanks partly to safer vehicles, but it’s fallen far less than anywhere else.

As a result, this country has turned into a disturbing outlier. Our vehicle fatality rate is about 40 percent higher than Canada’s or Australia’s. The comparison with Slovenia is embarrassing. In 1990, its death rate was more than five times as high as ours. Today, the Slovenians have safer roads.

Let’s not set our sights too high – could we start by just making America average again? Let’s try to catch up to our peers with similar levels of wealth and technology, instead of continuing to slip further behind. Or we could just bury our heads in the sand, not learn about the world, let our politicians tell us how great we are, and never find out that there could have been a better way.

Philadelphia’s comprehensive subway system

Like Boston, New York, Chicago, and many European cities, Philadelphia had a plan to build a comprehensive subway system early in the 20th century. Hidden City Philadelphia describes why most of it was never built.

The “Taylor Plan” outlined creating subway lines along Chestnut, Walnut and Arch Streets, a loop to distribute riders of the Broad Street Subway around City Center, a spur into Northeast Philadelphia on Roosevelt Boulevard, and a line along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to points north. In his plan, Taylor outlined this Parkway line as an extension of the Broad Street Line, which eventually opened with service from City Hall to Olney Avenue on September 1, 1928. The Parkway-Roxborough (or Northwestern) line would have started as an subway at City Hall and then proceed below the Parkway to 29th Street, where it would have continued as an elevated line to Henry Avenue, following that road north past Wissahickon Creek…

The majority of Taylor’s planned routes never came to be nor did Philadelphia’s original transit master plan. Taylor was replaced in 1916 by a more pragmatic transit commissioner, William S. Twining, who took exception to many of Taylor’s ideas. Where Taylor saw transit as a stimulant of growth, Twinning believed that lines should only be built where there was already demand…

The last gasp of an enhanced mass transit system came in July of 1929 when Mayor Harry Mackey signed an ordinance for a ten-year transit program that included the Ridge Avenue subway line, the Locust Street subway line, and several other never-built transit routes. The Mayor authorized a $55,000,000 loan that never materialized. Unlike New York City, Philadelphia did not move forward with subway expansion projects to alleviate the city’s crushing unemployment rate during the Great Depression.

It’s a sad missed opportunity. It could still be done, and in fact it is being done throughout the developing world today. But U.S. leaders generally do not have the vision or imagination to consider even the possibility of picking up a plan like this.

Trump’s infrastructure priority list

Here is a list of priority infrastructure projects the Trump administration has supposedly released. I guess these is the equivalent of Obama’s much-derided “shovel ready” projects, but they are smart enough not to revive that term. Here’s my very low tech data analysis:

  • transportation (39)
    • passenger rail/subway/stations (10)
    • freight rail (1)
    • highway/bridge (11)
    • R&D (1)
    • water transport, locks and dams, harbors/ports (12)
    • airport/air traffic control (4)
  • energy (7)
    • electric grid (3)
    • hydroelectric (2)
    • wind (1)
    • pipelines (1)
  • water (4)
    • wastewater (1)
    • reservoir (2)
    • desalination (1)

It’s an interesting list. Political discussion of infrastructure has a tendency to focus on highways and bridges, and this list is transportation heavy. But mass transit has almost equal representation. And looking at the projects, there is no sign that the administration is favoring red states or trying to punish Democrat-leaning coastal cities. There are more renewable energy projects than fossil fuel pipelines. There are a lot of dam, lock, and port projects presumably because the Army Corps of Engineers has a tendency to study and design these projects to death for decades, just waiting for a funding source to finally materialize. There are many cities that need billions in dollars in wastewater infrastructure (full disclosure: I am sitting in one of them and work in the industry), and Cleveland is the lucky winner in the list above. Cleveland is certainly a poor city and the wastewater rate payers there deserve some relief, but there are plenty of other cities (like Detroit, Newark, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia where I happen to be sitting) need help too. There must be 10,000 academics pitching research projects of various sorts, and Ohio State is the lucky winner. Ohio must have some savvy politicians who know something politicians in other states don’t know, or else they just care about their cities and infrastructure a little bit more. People sitting in Cincinnati and Akron could argue with me, I suppose.

lots more on Trump and infrastructure

There is a lot being written about Trump’s infrastructure plans – here are two roundup articles from City Observatory and The Week. Between them, they cite a total of 16 newspaper, magazine, academic, and political articles by my count. About 5 seem positive on balance and 11 negative. You could argue that I don’t pick the most un-biased sources, but let’s be honest, even if the left-leaning press adds some political spin, they still cover basic scientific and economic facts much better than outlets like Fox News.

Anyone who flies, drives, uses water, electricity, or gas, or visits public buildings knows the country’s infrastructure needs investment. Especially if you travel internationally, the state of our infrastructure is one of the first shocks that hits you when you return home. Economists seem to be in near consensus that better infrastructure would help our private sector be more efficient and competitive, and that infrastructure can be a good way to stimulate employment and income growth during a recession.

The negative articles raise a few issues. Some are ideological – some people just hate the idea of private money being invested, while others hate the idea of public money being invested. We need to get over these ideological biases and look for solutions that work, which are likely to be a blend. A little market discipline can help investors make good decisions about which risks are worth taking on, while public investment can help get projects with high social and environmental value over the financial hump.

The concerns that seem most valid to me have to do with special interests and lobbyists capturing these government funds just like they do in other industries like health care, energy, and security. Another thing that happens is that when funds are distributed through the states, politicians from rural areas are often able to steer investments away from the population centers where they would do the most economic and social good. This happens with highways, and also with water and sewer infrastructure loans through state revolving funds, which are only loans (not grants) to begin with. None of this results in efficient, high economic return investments any more than straight-up public investment would.

Perhaps my biggest concern, which the articles don’t touch on much, is that the country has no plan for what smart, efficient infrastructure would look like. If we had such a plan, we could target any new funds to the right kinds of projects. Market discipline is not a substitute for planning.

So call me an infrastructure advocate, but a skeptic that the U.S. government is going to do it the right way. My prescription would be a constitutional amendment clarifying that free speech only applies to humans and getting the lobbyists and campaign contributions under control, a comprehensive planning approach to all kinds of infrastructure, how they tie together and what they should look like over the next 50 years, and an implementation plan that targets funding through planning organizations in major metropolitan areas, leveraging federal and local public and private funds for the most economic, social, and environmental good.

And I know I’m dreaming. Maybe Trump will get an infrastructure bank done, that would be something tangible and useful at least.

the smart grid

Stanford has a research project for the smart grid.

Bits & Watts is a major new Stanford/SLAC initiative focused on innovations for the 21st century electric grid—a new grid paradigm that is needed to incorporate large amounts of clean power and a growing number of distributed energy resources, while simultaneously enabling grid reliability, resilience, security, and affordability.

The initiative organizes its research into three thematic areas: grid core, grid edge, and grid data science. The initiative will advance technologies, policies, markets, regulations, and business models that work in concert between each thematic area.

The Bits & Watts Initiative seeks to:

  • Offer and implement new research ideas and de-risk them for the electricity ecosystem
  • Educate faculty, students, post-doctoral fellows, and staff about the holistic systems-focused approach to solving problems for the electricity ecosystem
  • Offer holistic educational experience for current industry executives and other leaders
  • Create open-source hardware and software solutions rapidly adopted by industry and policymakers
  • Maintain flexibility amid uncertainty to exploit emerging technologies
  • Be a trusted and unbiased convener
  • Create platforms and protocols for sharing data with due consideration of privacy, security and confidentiality

Edward Glaeser on infrastructure

Edward Glaeser questions the idea of massive federal spending on infrastructure.

While infrastructure investment is often needed when cities or regions are already expanding, too often it goes to declining areas that don’t require it and winds up having little long-term economic benefit. As for fighting recessions, which require rapid response, it’s dauntingly hard in today’s regulatory environment to get infrastructure projects under way quickly and wisely. Centralized federal tax funding of these projects makes inefficiencies and waste even likelier, as Washington, driven by political calculations, gives the green light to bridges to nowhere, ill-considered high-speed rail projects, and other boondoggles. America needs an infrastructure renaissance, but we won’t get it by the federal government simply writing big checks. A far better model would be for infrastructure to be managed by independent but focused local public and private entities and funded primarily by user fees, not federal tax dollars.

I get the argument that investing without a plan leads to waste. We don’t really have any real planning at the federal level. I think it would help for the federal government to set a vision and direction for what the smart infrastructure of the future should look like, and not just transportation (public, private and human muscle-powered) but energy, water, communications, freight, manufacturing, housing and even green infrastructure. One of the problems with local authorities and companies doing the planning is that they focus on only one of these things at a time, so they miss out on potential synergies and opportunities for hybrid infrastructure. An example might be highway corridors that serve as rights of way for high speed rail, high-voltage lines, pipelines and movement corridors for wildlife. Another might be a system of parks that move water resources, improve water and air quality, absorb floodwaters, counteract climate change, provide habitat and improve peoples’ health.

He is right though that a lot of planning needs to be at the metropolitan area scale and incorporate hard-nosed cost-benefit analysis. This is already done to a certain extent by designated “metropolitan planning organizations”, but this only applies to transportation. It could be more comprehensive. I also see a middle ground between pure local funding and pure federal funding. Federal funds can be targeted only to projects that are in line with the national vision and the local comprehensive plan. They could be low- or no-interest loans rather than outright grants. They could be grants but require local matching funds and encourage private investment. They could be loans that are partially forgiven if the projects meet performance and cost-effectiveness criteria.

Having both federal and local plans ready to go, along with a federal infrastructure bank able to issue bonds, would also mean the country could really take advantage of periods of unemployment and low interest rates both to stimulate the economy in the short run and boost productivity and prosperity in the long run.

Swiss tunnel

It is actually possible to build major new infrastructure. At least, the Swiss can do it.

The Gotthard rail link has taken 20 years to build, and cost more than $12bn (£8.2bn). It will, the Swiss say, revolutionise Europe’s freight transport.

Plans for a better rail tunnel have been around since the 1940s, but it was not until 1992 that Swiss voters backed their government’s plan to build a new high-speed rail link through the Alps…

For 17 years, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, more than 2,000 people have worked on the tunnel. There have been accidents: nine tunnel miners have died.

Pretty amazing. What infrastructure projects will the U.S. public support starting today that will not be ready for a generation? Like I said, the Swiss can do it.

I think tunneling is a key technology for the future for everything from transportation to water management, and eventually space colonization. The technology has improved a lot since we dug the first subway systems with shovels in the late 1800s. Now we use massive tunnel boring machines like the one shown in this article. But it’s still hard and expensive enough with our current technology that it’s not often the first technology we go to.

Menino Survey of Mayors

The Menino Survey of Mayors is a survey where mayors are surveyed. Basically they say they need help with infrastructure, and they complain that states are useless at best and anti-city at worst.

It would make sense to have some kind of infrastructure planning at the scale of the metropolitan area. If a metro area could agree on a planning body to represent it, and that planning body could come up with a truly comprehensive infrastructure plan, the federal government could bypass the state and pass funding directly along to that body for implementation. An infrastructure bank, part of the Federal Reserve or alongside it, could issue infrastructure bonds as part of the country’s monetary policy – invest when the private sector is underinvesting and the overall economy is lagging, and let the private sector play as large a role as it is willing to when the economy is strong. This shouldn’t be controversial – there is a near-consensus among economists that expanding infrastructure spending would be a win-win for jobs and economic growth.

This wouldn’t have to mean states would be completely obsolete. They could do the planning and implementation for the infrastructure that connects the metro areas together, and for agriculture policy and the infrastructure that brings agricultural goods to market. Their political power could be equal to a metro area in proportion to the people they represent, not the empty land they represent.

Changing the balance of power on paper between the federal government, states, and cities might require constitutional changes. But create the infrastructure bank and the funding mechanisms might change the practical balance pretty quickly.