Denver’s planners created a board game, Right of Way, that was scaled to the city’s streets. It had cards that symbolized lanes for travel, parking, buses, bikes, mixed use, and medians. There were too many cards for the available space, so officials gathered community representatives to debate which sorts of lanes mattered most. To everyone’s surprise, the group worked out an agreement, one that the city council pretty much ratified. “In the absence of additional benefits, it’s all about trade-offs,” said Gideon Berger, who headed the Denver project.
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.
More likely, the story of infra-structure for the foreseeable future can be found in Denver. As metropolises become ever-bigger economic hubs, city planners will look for better options for moving people from place to place or risk losing critical investment from local businesses. No longer will officials talk only about adding infrastructure but will also broaden the discussion to include other options—mass transit or bike lanes, say. The idea is to get people out of their cars, without resorting to the dictatorial, London-style option of charging drivers to enter the city—which Bloomberg once proposed, to Bronx cheers.
Let’s not forget another source of funds: user fees, more palatable than direct taxes. The Capitol Beltway in Northern Virginia recently introduced toll lanes—privately funded, mostly—that, for a guaranteed 45 mph speed, electronically charge drivers a levy that varies with traffic volume. If governments are strapped, who’s the last patsy standing? You are.
The author is a staff correspondent at National Journal.
By Jordan Weissmann
Early in 2012, the U.S. housing market quietly woke up from its postcrash coma and began the recovery we’d all been waiting for. Today, home prices are rising, foreclosures are falling, and construction crews are back in business.
So what’s left for President Obama to do, now that he has been reelected despite a checkered record on helping homeowners? Plenty. The administration could take a number of steps that might ease the debt burden on millions of families and jump-start our all-but-frozen private lending markets. And, even better, Obama might be able to take many of these actions without waiting for Congress.
Housing’s comeback has been steady but fragile. According to CoreLogic, a data-crunching consultancy, nearly 11 million homeowners are still underwater, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. New lending has slowed to a crawl. With banks skittish about credit risks, the Federal Housing Administration or the government-sponsored entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac now back about 90 percent of new mortgages. Without Washington, in short, there would be no market to speak of.