Tag Archives: infrastructure

Getting From Here to There…and Back

The age of driverless cars and trucks is rapidly approaching. Literally millions of Americans make their livings driving vehicles–trucks, Ubers, taxis, school buses…the list is long, and the consequences of those massive job losses will be severe and unprecedented.

I have no policy prescriptions to offer that might mitigate that job loss disaster. But I do have a response to those transit skeptics who oppose improving city public transportation systems because they claim self-driving cars will make those systems unnecessary.They don’t seem to understand that whether or not someone actually has to drive their car is utterly irrelevant.

What is relevant is that good, reliable public transportation–whether driven by a human or a computer–makes automobile ownership less necessary, and automobiles take a huge chunk out of most household budgets.

A recent article in Resilience, written by an American now living in Ireland, makes an effective case for public transportation.

The healthiest cities in the world have one thing in common; a network of trains, trolleys, trams, subways, buses, and other ways of getting around that don’t depend on everyone having a personal vehicle. Such services save everyone money, use less energy, generate less exhaust to pollute the air and less rubbish to pollute the water and soil. They tip the balance of power on roads, making them light with cars and bustling with humans — walkers, bicyclists and sidewalk vendors. Cities with healthy bus and rail systems feel like neighbourhoods threaded with capillary streets, rather than rows of buildings built alongside highways.

We think of Ireland as having progressed in recent decades, but a hundred years ago trains covered much more of Ireland, with perhaps twice as many lines as there are now. A map of Dublin in the 1920s, likewise, would show a spaghetti-explosion of streetcar lines winding through the narrow streets, pulled by horses at first, and later powered by overhead lines. The recent construction of light rail systems like the Luas were promoted as a next great step forward in transportation, but like most Great Steps Forward, it was merely restoring a tiny piece of what we once had.

The USA used to be the same; for more than a hundred years cities there were networked with a web of streetcars that acted as a circulatory system from one end of a city to the other, as well as buses that filled in the gaps.  Streetcars and buses seem slow to modern eyes only because we compare them to a car on the Autobahn; compare them to a car in the city and they were often faster.

The author notes, with regret, that many cities have begun to regard public transportation as expendable, since it doesn’t make headlines or make money for elites. The people most dependent upon public transit don’t hire lobbyists or make “meaningful” political contributions, and in an era where “tax” is a dirty word and municipalities are starving for income, that lack of political clout makes it easy to defund transit.  When that happens, it not only inconveniences middle-income people who depend upon transit, it also isolates and strands thousands of poor, elderly and vulnerable people.

And it privileges automobiles in ways that we now recognize are both costly and unhealthy.

I know that from experience, for I grew up in the USA, a nation that once had trolleys and streetcars in every major city and most minor ones. According to historian Bradford Snell, 90 percent of all trips in the 1920s were by rail; only 10 percent of Americans needed a car. My grandmother and grandfather met on the St Louis trolley, the one Judy Garland sang an ode to in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and said most people never needed to drive.

After World War II, however, my country’s cities were transformed; most of the streetcar lines were reduced, sold, cancelled and destroyed, many by a coalition of car, tire, oil and truck companies. Those companies were found guilty of criminal conspiracy in 1951, and fined a pittance, long after the damage was done. Snell believes the corporations were not just trying to monopolise streetcar lines – the actual charge – but consciously conspiring to transform America to a car-dependent society. When they bought out the streetcars they didn’t just tighten belts – they destroyed the infrastructure, ripping the rails out of the streets and paving over their grooves, effectively salting the earth.

Our cities are now built around the fact that there is about one car for every American. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

Since most train lines were ripped up in the USA, Ireland and most other Western countries, many people must rely on buses. My native USA’s buses are less readily available than most other countries. In many cities I’ve been in, bus lines habitually run late or not at all, and can be expensive for the financially-strapped people most likely to need them. In many places they carry a stigma of poverty, or require people to wait in unsafe neighbourhoods.

Taking public transportation to the job is an amenity that bolsters our sense of being part of a public, unlike commuting (usually alone and at substantial cost) in one’s own car. The author’s final point is worth emphasizing:

Critics of public transportation accuse such systems of not making money. But how much money did the road in front of your house make last year? How much money does our asphalt make, or our electric wires, or our sewage pipes? The questions are ridiculous because these are not moneymaking enterprises; they are basic infrastructure, one of the legitimate reasons for paying taxes or having a government.

 

The Looters Have Arrived

Wednesday, I posted about the “partnership” approach Trump proposes to take to infrastructure repair.

Paul Krugman had a recent description of that plan, which he concludes is not about public investment, but about ripping off taxpayers.

Trumpists are touting the idea of a big infrastructure build, and some Democrats are making conciliatory noises about working with the new regime on that front. But remember who you’re dealing with: if you invest anything with this guy, be it money or reputation, you are at great risk of being scammed.

So, what do we know about the Trump infrastructure plan, such as it is? Crucially, it’s not a plan to borrow $1 trillion and spend it on much-needed projects — which would be the straightforward, obvious thing to do. It is, instead, supposed to involve having private investors do the work both of raising money and building the projects — with the aid of a huge tax credit that gives them back 82 percent of the equity they put in. To compensate for the small sliver of additional equity and the interest on their borrowing, the private investors then have to somehow make profits on the assets they end up owning.

The description of this rip-off reminded me rather forcefully of the “looters” described by Ayn Rand in  Atlas Shrugged.

I have frequently been bemused by the actions of politicians and others who claim to have been influenced by Rand’s philosophy (and who all seem to see themselves as one of her protagonists. Remember those “I am John Galt” bumper stickers?) I particularly recall an Indiana agency head during the Daniels administration who made all his employees read the “two most important books”–Atlas Shrugged and–wait for it– the bible.

Rand, of course, was a very outspoken atheist who insisted that her philosophy was an explicit rejection–and antithesis– of Christianity.

Then we have Paul Ryan, another Rand fan, who is intent upon keeping Americans from becoming dependent on such “giveaways” as health care (and who was able to go to college after his father’s death thanks to Social Security).  I wonder if he will see the parallels between an infrastructure scheme that will enrich crony capitalists and Rand’s withering description of the morally indefensible “looters” who used government to enrich themselves at the expense of the truly productive  (Rand’s version of the “makers and takers” worldview).

Ayn Rand had an excuse for her extreme worldview; she was a product of  Soviet collectivism, and saw first-hand the danger that such a system posed to human diversity and individual excellence. What she failed to see was the equivalent danger posed by a society that defines success solely as the attainment of wealth, however acquired, and encourages contempt rather than compassion for the weak and powerless.

The latter society is the one that produced Donald Trump, who is already promising to be looter-in-chief.

Outsourcing Responsibility

Sometimes, I wonder why we bother to elect chief executives, since an increasing number of them are clearly uninterested in that boring activity called…what was it? oh yes…governing. Public administration. Management.

Yesterday’s news highlighted the latest in a series of missteps (a nicer word than “fuck ups”) by the Pence Administration. (Actually, I believe this one dates back to Daniels’ time.)

State officials threatened Wednesday to find a private developer in default of its contract for building a 21-mile section of the Interstate 69 extension in central Indiana after a major subcontractor stopped work over lack of payment.

The Indiana Finance Authority has issued a notice of non-performance to I-69 Development Partners LLC for the project upgrading the current Indiana 37 route between Bloomington and Martinsville.

According to bids submitted for the project in 2013, I-69 Development Partners consists of OHL Concesiones of Madrid, Star America Fund LLC of Roslyn, New York, and UIF GP LLC of Delaware.

The dispute comes after Crider & Crider Inc., the contractor responsible for the project’s earth-moving operations, halted work this week.

For the past several decades, public officials–especially but certainly not exclusively Republican elected officials–have had a love affair with so-called “privatization.” I say “so-called,” because genuine privatization involves government’s withdrawal from a given activity (Margaret Thatcher selling off steel mills to the private sector, for example.) In the U.S., what is usually called privatization is actually outsourcing–the practice of choosing a for-profit or nonprofit surrogate to manage a job or provide a service on behalf of a government agency.

I have written extensively about the issues involved in outsourcing, and I’m not inclined to belabor the issue here. Suffice it to say that agencies of government may contract with private entities to provide government services, but they cannot contract away their ultimate responsibility for seeing to it that the project or service is appropriately managed or delivered.

When government hires a contractor to perform a service–in this case, to build a road–it still has the obligation to supervise that contractor’s performance. Effective and competent outsourcing requires that the relevant government agency retain sufficient capacity to manage and monitor the contractor.

Some government functions, of course, simply should not be outsourced. (Private prisons come to mind.) Reasonable people can argue about the wisdom of contracting with private developers to manage the building of roads, but those reasonable people will usually agree that the state retains an obligation to supervise and control its contractors, who are, after all, being paid with tax dollars.

In this case, clearly, that supervision was lacking. And we all know who pays the price when government fails to discharge its most basic responsibilities, one of which is infrastructure:

State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said many people are frustrated with the traffic delays on Indiana 37 caused by I-69 construction and that he’s not been able to get answers from state officials or the developer.

“People don’t understand why they’re driving through miles and miles of traffic barrels and seeing little, if anything, getting done,” he said.

About 95 miles of the I-69 extension have opened since 2012 between Evansville and Bloomington through southwestern Indiana. The total cost of the I-69 extension is estimated at $3 billion, but the cost of the final leg from Martinsville to Interstate 465 has not been determined.

When that cost is determined, we all know who will pay it.

Oh, Canada!

Today, my husband and I return from a ten-day trip that took us out of the U.S. and—far more consequentially—much of the time, out of areas in which we had access to the internet. My blog platform allows me to schedule posts, but my ability to share those posts on Facebook was pretty hit or miss. So—apologies to readers for the lack of regularity.

It’s experiences like this that make me realize how utterly dependent I have become upon today’s technology, and how helpless I feel when I can’t immediately read and respond to emails, or consult Dr. Google to find information.

This particular trip was a long-planned cruise vacation with our younger two grandchildren, ages 12 and 14. No parents invited. We began in Boston, and ended with Quebec City and Montreal, Canada. (Along the way, I think we guaranteed the continued profitability of Gray Lines tours…)

In many ways, visiting Canada doesn’t seem different from visiting other parts of the U.S. Even in Quebec, where French is the “first” language, everyone speaks English, and the clothes and customs are familiar. Starbucks and McDonalds and Subway are ubiquitous.

But there are differences, and they reflect well on Canada. And not so well on us.

The news was full of stories about Canadians’ embrace of Syrian refugees, for example. Canadian families wanting to “adopt” a refugee family (in the sense of helping that family acclimate, find housing and employment, and willingness to function as a resource) significantly outnumber available “adoptees.” The articles provided an embarrassing contrast to so many Americans’ deeply suspicious and negative response to that same refugee population.

Then there was the contrast provided by Canada’s physical and social infrastructure.

Quebec’s sprawling historic districts were meticulously maintained. Streets everywhere we went were free of potholes, and public art was everywhere—including on the sides of buildings and on the supports for highways. In both cities, public parks, public squares and other public spaces were everywhere and filled with people. Montreal, we are told, was just named one of the globe’s “smart cities.” (We were duly grateful–we finally had  wifi!)

Canadians all seemed to approve of their Premier. Those with whom we spoke were uniformly grateful for and supportive of the country’s national health care system. Several taxi drivers bragged about the efficiency of their cities’ winter snow removal (given the amount of snow they get, it’s an obvious priority.)

And everyone with whom we interacted was so polite….albeit quite willing to share with Americans that they are appalled and repulsed by Donald Trump.

Travel is generally instructive, if only to make us look at our own cities with fresh eyes—to ask ourselves what our cities and neighborhoods would look like to someone from another country. What would we brag about? What would embarrass us?

A few days as a tourist allows only a very superficial assessment of any city or country. I have no idea what civic or governmental problems bedevil the residents of the charming places we visited, what urban challenges are unmet, what social problems remain unresolved.

Still—it’s hard not to get a bit wistful when you see all that well-maintained infrastructure…..

 

 

 

The Real Obscenity

If your definition of “obscenity” is sexual, you can stop reading now.

Lockheed Martin recently held a conference for Defense contractors, at which they shared the “good news” about global conflicts.

Lockheed Martin Executive Vice President Bruce Tanner told the conference his company will see “indirect benefits” from the war in Syria, citing the Turkish military’s recent decision to shoot down a Russian warplane.

Executives of OshKosh and Raytheon reported equally positive business prospects, noting “significant upticks” for sales of military equipment due to ISIS and unrest across the Middle East.

The last bit of good news for the contractors is the latest budget deal in Congress. After years of cuts following the budget sequester, the deal authorizes $607 billion in defense spending, just $5 billion down from the Pentagon’s request, which DefenseNews called a “treat” for the industry.

America’s infrastructure—our roads, bridges, electrical grid, water utilities, rail—is dangerously deteriorated. Our cities are struggling to hire sufficient police. Our schools lack supplies, our teachers are underpaid, and we can’t find the money for universal kindergarten, let alone day care. We have nothing that can compare to Europe’s public transportation systems, or China’s high-speed rail. Our right-wing lawmakers are furious that we are finally making basic medical care accessible, and they insist we cannot afford to continue social security and other social safety net programs at current levels.

But we can evidently afford to spend more than the rest of the world combined for defense, and the military-industrial complex about which Eisenhower warned us. We seem able to find billions for the armaments that keep defense contractors fat and happy, while we starve the “homeland” and citizens we are supposedly protecting.

That’s my definition of obscene.

We talk a lot about the growth of American inequality, and the focus of those conversations is usually on income–wage stagnation, the incredibly bloated salaries paid to Wall Street “movers and shakers,” a tax system that allows mega-millionaires to avoid paying their fair shares.

All of those issues are important. But in a properly functioning society, where all taxpayers do pay their fair share, government is responsible for using that tax money to provide a physical and social infrastructure serving all its citizens, rich or poor.

We recognize third-world countries by inequalities of infrastructure; they are places where the wealthy hire their own police or bodyguards, live in gated compounds where they pave the streets and landscape parks for their own use, while segregating themselves from the wretched surroundings inhabited by the less fortunate. Those countries often support and valorize highly privileged military establishments.

If, as most knowledgable observers claim, the threats America faces are significantly different than in the past—if those threats come primarily from non-state terrorists—we need fewer tanks and bombs and missiles, and more targeted and surgical strategies.

We can defend the legitimate interests of the United States without unnecessarily enriching the military-industrial complex, and without maintaining the current bloated and obscenely expensive defense establishment.