Infrastructure for everyone! – not so fast.

With the global economy in recession and unemployment levels rising, elected leaders throughout the world are turning to infrastructure projects as a way to put thousands of people back to work.

With this massive forthcoming investment we just had to investigate what’s likely to come down the infrastructure pipeline.  It turns out however, that what me be coming our way are not exactly the forward-looking interventions we are hoping for.  In fact, the stimulus packages proposed potentially threaten the exact projects we should want to succeed.

This risk is a direct result of our current economic situation.  In order for the stimulus to stimulate things need to happen relatively quickly.  Thus, a tension exists between doing things well and doing things quickly.

Unfortunately, federal governments don’t have the best reputation when it comes to spending wisely on infrastructure. In a recent New York Times article “Piling up Monuments of Waste”, David Leonhardt claims:

It’s hard to exaggerate how scattershot the current system is. Government agencies usually don’t even have to do a rigorous analysis of a project or how it would affect traffic and the environment, relative to its cost and to the alternatives — before deciding whether to proceed. In one recent survey of local officials, almost 80 percent said they had based their decisions largely on politics, while fewer than 20 percent cited a project’s potential benefits.

Road and highway construction is one apparent category of infrastructure spending where politics threatens to trump utility. The Brookings Institution directs our attention at U.S. roads as being and potential investment with a high ROI. The proposed investment needs to distance itself from politically driven projects that lead to things like underused highways in western Pennsylvania, and instead focus on alleviating the financial losses in major US centers due to road congestion.

[Clogged Arteries]

…the places that are most critical to the country’s economic competitiveness don’t get what they need. The nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions generate 75 percent of its economic output. They also handle 75 percent of its foreign sea cargo, 79 percent of its air cargo, and 92 percent of its air-passenger traffic. Yet of the 6,373 earmarked projects that dominate the current federal transportation law, only half are targeted at these metro areas.

"Clogged Arteries", Bruce Katz and Robert Puentas, The Atlantic

Ok.  So this is one tangible project.  We’ll keep looking for more.  Hopefully the next one we find will not only offer hard-data by analyzing effect vs. cost (also known as value) but also move beyond the shovel-ready standards rooted in the 1950s fossil fuel paradigm – something that we may lose sight of during this infrastructure spending spree

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