A Bridge to Somewhere

Sometimes, if you build it, they really do come.
June 2009
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

Most transportation improvements happen mainly because one thing leads to another. A lot of people want to cross a river, you build a bridge to replace the overcrowded ferry. Lots of cars are on a road, you expand the road into a highway. More and more people want to fly somewhere, you build a bigger airport.

And that's a legitimate way to plan transportation.

But there is another way. Rather than reacting to demand, you anticipate demand. You build a bridge or a road or an airport that leads where people are not traveling very much. This is riskier than simply responding to demand, but the payoff is potentially bigger.

The greatest historical example is the Erie Canal. In the early 1800s, few were trying to get from Albany, New York, to the tiny town of Buffalo, an almost impossible journey of nearly 300 overland miles through dense forest, rivers and rugged terrain. It was only a dream--in this case a governor's--that if a canal were built, passengers and shippers would want a route to Buffalo, on the Great Lakes, so they could travel along the lakes to the Midwest. Because it was an unproven idea, many derided the Erie Canal before and during its construction.

But not after. Financed with unprecedented levels of debt by the state, the Erie Canal became the greatest public works project of all time, measured by the amount of wealth created. The Erie Canal now connected the Midwest to the East Coast and to the rest of the world. The canal was the reason New York City became the nation's economic capital. It repaid the public debt many times over.

But you don't have to go back two centuries to find projects that anticipate demand and make it work. Spain, eyeing the fast trains in France in the early 1990s, opted to build its first high-speed rail line from Madrid to Seville, a beautiful city of Moorish architecture and Flamenco dancers, but not an economic dynamo.

Many thought a better choice would have been to build it between Madrid and the thriving city of Barcelona. Many businessmen already made that journey, and many wanted to do so more quickly and easily.

I rode the new Seville line in 1994, shortly after it opened. I made the 300-mile trip from Madrid to Seville in less than two hours, visiting the Seville World's Fair and returning to Madrid in time for dinner. Even so, I wondered at the wisdom of making Madrid-Seville the first line in the system.

But over the past 17 years, the line to Seville has jump-started the economy not only of that city but of an entire region of the country, beautiful but struggling Andalucia. And once the rest of Spain saw how well high-speed train travel worked, the network was expanded, to Barcelona and other major cities, as well. There are predictions that by 2020, nine-tenths of the country's population will be living within about 30 miles of a high-speed train connection.

It's not only transportation between cities that illustrates this principle. It's also transportation within a city or metropolitan area. While Spain was building its high-speed rail network, Paris was constructing its latest subway line, The Meteor. This high-tech marvel with conductorless trains and sliding glass doors goes from the busy Left Bank along the Seine over to the Bercy district on the other side, long an underused part of the city filled with older industrial buildings. Planners thought that a good way to drive metropolitan growth into an underutilized area was to build a fast subway line there--along with a nearby billion-dollar National Library. It worked.

In all these examples, planners ignored areas of substantial existing demand, and put the public money into places where there was little congestion. They understood that congestion, whether on a train or a road, is not always the best indicator of where to invest transportation dollars.

This is as true in the United States of 2009 as it was in Albany in 1820. Planners within a metro region in the United States are not necessarily making a mistake if they ignore a congested highway in a "favored quarter," and instead spend with a goal of driving population and economic growth into a less-favored area.

Americans seem to recognize that infrastructure investment can jump-start an economy. But as states and localities decide where to put their money, they shouldn't simply generate studies to show where the traffic is. They should ask how transportation can expand commerce and trade, and make better places to live.

Former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was derided for his infamous "bridge to nowhere," which connected remote Gravina Island to the Alaska mainland. And maybe this was a boondoggle. But the mere fact that nothing much had been happening on Gravina Island doesn't automatically make the creation of access to it a bad idea.

Sometimes a bridge to nowhere can create a somewhere in the end.