Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Infrastructure Follies

I've said it before and I'll say it again, America's crumbling infrastructure, not debt, is the real sign of our economic decline:
Europeans visiting the Northeastern United States – and many parts of the East Coast — can show their children what Europe’s infrastructure looked like during the 1960s.

In New York, they can take taxis bumping over streets marked by potholes. European children might find it funny. They can descend into a dingy and grimy underground world to ride New York City’s quaint and screeching subway system, if they can figure out where trains go.

They can take the children for a ride with Amtrak from New York to the nation’s capital, giggling as the train slowly heaves and rolls, often in fits and starts, along the rickety tracks. Passengers can be heard joking that the Navy trains its sailors on this railway system, because anyone who can make it through two or three cars without bumping into seated passengers or spilling food on them is fit to go to sea.

If they departed from Pennsylvania Station in New York, they would not have known until 5 to 10 minutes before departure from which track the train would leave. And it might not leave on time. In their home country, the children would have learned that the track from which a train departs is printed in the train schedule. It is the same every day.

At Pennsylvania Station, hundreds of passengers wait in suspense for the announcement of the track and dash to it in a mad rush, running along the train in a frantic search for a seat. In Europe, one would have booked a seat in a rail car that stops at a spot shown on a poster on the track.

Unlike Europe or Asia, where trains typically adhere to the minute to scheduled times, the departure times in Amtrak’s schedules merely represent a promise that the train will not leave before then. The actual getaway might be many minutes or even more than an hour after the scheduled departure time, with any of dozens of different excuses offered. Brakes on the train stuck. Signal switches malfunctioned. Electricity was not available to the train for some reason. A train ahead, on the same track, broke down. And so on.

Arriving at a destination on time, something Europeans take largely for granted, is relatively rare on Amtrak. Furthermore, the train in Europe or Asia is likely to have traveled at much higher speed. The tracks there are so smooth that one could easily carry an open cup of coffee along several cars or work on the computer.

Why and how Americans, who pride themselves on being fussy consumers, have put up with this mid-20th-century rail system is a mystery.
America’s Mid-20th-Century Infrastructure (New York Times)
Doomsayers' warnings that China will overtake the United States in economic strength because of its snazzier airports and trains are surely overblown. But we shouldn't minimize the task that our elderly infrastructure presents. Highways and bridges will need $2.5 trillion in upgrades if they are to survive for another 50 years -- a must-do to keep commerce thriving. And that figure doesn't even take into account the airports, railroads, subways, sewage-treatment plants, waterworks, levees, electric grids, pipelines, and all of those other expensive systems that people ignore until they break down.

So, who's gonna pay? Don't count on Washington, where cut, cut, cut is the order of the day. The 41,000-mile interstate highway system, which bound the nation into a single market with an investment of $130 billion, will cost twice that much in upkeep over the next five years. After two years of wrangling, Congress cobbled together only half a highway bill, authorizing just $104 billion -- less per year than a longer version and insufficient to cover modern improvements. The era of the massive federal public works project is over.

If Washington is broke, then what? State governments, which kick in one-tenth of the costs (to the feds' one-fourth) for roads, have also suffered from the sagging economy. The private sector could step in--and to a minor extent, already has -- but that requires an intimate but complicated cooperation between municipalities, investors, and federal overseers.

More and more, the burden is devolving onto the level of government closest to the potholes. Roads, railways, gas pipelines, water pipes, electric grids, and even Internet access will increasingly rely on individual communities' choices and resources. In Lower Manhattan or along the Brooklyn waterfront, it'll be up to New York City to protect against another disastrous hit to the city's economy like that wrought by superstorm Sandy. Absent federal money to build the levees, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will need to find the funding elsewhere. Fuhgettaboutit.
The Infrastructure Cliff: Why the U.S. Desperately Needs a $2.5 Trillion Upgrade (The Atlantic)
Maglev trains have long been the holy grail of ground transportation. Levitating above steel rails, Maglev trains need no wheels and have no friction with the track, resulting in an ultra-fast and ultra-quiet ride. So far they're also very expensive. Counting an additional planned Tokyo-to-Osaka leg, the project is expected to cost upwards of $100 billion.

But if that sounds prohibitive, consider that the United States spends significantly more than that on highways in a single year. And while a highway might get you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in six hours if you're lucky, a Maglev train like the one Japan's building could theoretically do it in an hour and 15 minutes. In fact, California has been trying to build a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail line for some 30 years, but the fight for funding has been tooth-and-nail. The state is now slated to have a 220-mph train up and running by 2028—but that's just a conventional bullet train, the kind Japan has had for decades. There were once plans for a California-Nevada maglev train, but they never left the station, and the money for planning them ended up being reallocated to a highway project.

Why are we so far behind Japan in transportation technology? The reasons are many, and perhaps the biggest is that the United States has been built around the automobile. Sprawling suburbs make mass transit really difficult. But it's been clear for years that our McMansion-and-SUV version of the American Dream isn't sustainable in the long term. And as our cities grow denser and our existing infrastructure ages, it's just silly that we aren't making more of an effort to replace it with something better and more futuristic.

The real obstacle today is a lack of political will to plan for the future, especially from the Republicans who torpedoed President Obama's high-speed rail plans in his first term. Those plans were far from perfect, but they would have been a great start. Come 2040, the United States is still going to be putting around on mid-20th-century infrastructure while countries like Japan, China, and Germany marvel at our backwardness.
Why Can't We Have a 300-MPH Floating Train Like Japan? (Slate)

And don't miss this must-listen podcast with Scott Huler, author of On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make our World Work. Eye-opening stuff.


  1. American trains are awful. There is another thing... the communities that have a train stop, that should be a lucky thing, right? But it's not... American locomotive engineers are punished if they don't honk like fricking maniacs at every rabbit crossing, every rural road. Thus blighting communities they pass through. Europeans would never tolerate this. I stayed at a farm in Missouri this fall where freight trains and Amtrak passed by so often sleeping was difficult... one honking rumbling train passed and another one was already crossing the sonic horizon.

    And I won't even go into the sullen behavior of the crew, the toxic "potable" water, and the awful seats.

    1. Vera, if you don't already hang out on Kunstler's blog, you should. I'm sure you can eventually troll him into ranting about how America has a rail system that Bulgaria would be ashamed of.

    2. That pit of vipers? :-) He rants enough about trains without me, dontcha think?

      My favorite train trip is between Green River UT and Denver. Splendid sightseeing while the train maintains the speed of a Conestoga wagon.

  2. Oh and hey, speaking of the infrastructure, have you noticed lately they've been major gas blowages reported in the media every few weeks? An interstate in WV just melted down because of one such thing. I bet the small blowages don't even get reported.

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