Infrastructure & Environment

America Must Invest in Bigger and Better Infrastructure Projects

Have we lost our capacity to think big? Asia and Western Europe are building a series of infrastructure mega-projects that dwarf our efforts.
by | June 2012

To stand in the cavernous spaces underground that will become stations on the new 2nd Avenue subway line in New York City is to feel pride as an American that we can still do work on this scale. I didn’t know we had it in us anymore. I’m glad we do.

Today, work on the line takes place 24 hours a day, five days a week, but its construction history, with a number of starts and stops, stretches back 75 years. When finished in 2016, this phase of the 2nd Avenue subway line will run for two miles, only a fifth or so of the planned route. But it is still something: It’s the first new subway line constructed in New York City since 1932, and it will alter life for tens of thousands of residents.

The subway project is one of a half dozen or so mega-projects under construction in New York City right now. Four of them are for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the state agency that runs the city and regional transit systems. The projects include the $4.4 billion 2nd Avenue subway line; the $7.3 billion East Side Access project, which will carry train passengers from Long Island into a new station beneath Grand Central Terminal; the $2.1 billion extension of the No. 7 subway line on Manhattan’s West Side; and the $1.4 billion Fulton Street Transit Center, which connects multiple subway lines underneath a glittering new dome. Collectively, they are an example of something we don’t do enough of in this country: big, ambitious and expensive infrastructure projects, ones that change our worlds for the better. In their design and thoroughness, the New York mega-projects could have been bigger, longer and fancier. But that they are being built at all is progress.

We don’t do public works in this country as ambitiously or as comprehensively as we should. We don’t even do it as well as we used to. In comparison with other countries now, we lag even further behind, not only in size and scale but also in execution.

Western Europe has recently built or is building a series of mega-projects that have few if any counterparts here. They include the Chunnel, the 31-mile train tunnel between England and France that opened in 1994; the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden (the longest in Europe), completed in 1999; the Gotthard rail tunnel, which will run 35 miles under the Alps and will be the longest of its kind when it opens in 2016; and many others.

Of course, that infrastructure-building is dwarfed by what’s happening in Asia, like the relatively new airport in Hong Kong that includes direct train service into the city, or China’s $62 billion South-to-North Water Diversion Project. We are still doing some big projects here. In its April issue, Governing named the five biggest projects under way now. But we could still do more.

Michael Horodniceanu, a dapper man in a bow tie who leads MTA Capital Construction, a division of the MTA that manages capital projects, acknowledges that he labors in an environment in which America as a country is not currently embracing infrastructure spending as much as it should.

“Everyone else is beating the crap out of us,” he says from his office overlooking Lower Manhattan. Even Great Britain, from which the United States derives its fragmented and incomplete approach to infrastructure, is pursuing several ambitious projects, says Horodniceanu. “We seem to have forgotten how to do this.”

Of course, we should only spend money on public works projects that are intelligently and gracefully designed, and that fulfill a need, either known or anticipated. Just as the late Steve Jobs of Apple bragged that his company could create products people would love before they knew they needed them, great infrastructure can fulfill a need people didn’t know they had.

“You don’t know about demand until you build it,” says Robert “Buzz” Paaswell, who co-authored a study analyzing the New York mega-projects and is a distinguished professor of civil engineering at the City College in New York. “It’s been proven in Europe. High-speed rail has changed the geography” there.

Thanks to low interest rates caused by the ongoing financial crisis, coupled with the need for an economic jumpstart and construction companies in need of work (and able to work more cheaply), one would have thought this would be a perfect time for a massive renewal effort in this country.

But after an initial spurt of money from Congress when President Obama took office, that hasn’t happened. The political forces have not been right for it. As the presidential race between Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney heats up, as well as countless state and local elections, I hope that public works spending makes an appearance as an issue.

“You should invest in hard times,” says Paaswell, not only because the work is cheaper, “but because it will make the hard times shorter.”

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall  |  columnist
alex@rpa.org  | 

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