The Aughts: The Decade of Infrastructure

As the decade ends, there's little to cheer save a notable exception: infrastructure.
February 2010
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

New York City's High Line is aptly named, because it shoots down the west side of Manhattan at an altitude of about two stories, ignoring the traffic and hubbub below. Previously its rails serviced industry, such as the block-long old Nabisco factory at 15th Street, where millions of Oreos were made and distributed throughout the country.

Now only people stroll along the High Line, perhaps taking a break from work, enjoying the flowers, grasses and shrubbery that bloom around them.

This transformation of a derelict old train line, just a decade ago considered an eyesore and a drag on property values, into an elevated park and one of the hottest addresses in New York City is perhaps an apt symbol for another transformation that has occurred over the last decade, which is in our thinking.

The decade of 2000 to 2010 has earned many monikers - the aughts, the null decade, the double-Os - and most of them are negative. But good things also happened in the last 10 years, one of which is the increasing recognition of and focus on infrastructure. A decade ago, the word "infrastructure" was hardly known outside the specialized worlds of public works departments. Now editorial writers bandy it about without explanation.

This was the decade of infrastructure. This was the decade when a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis and focused a nation's attention on the vast litany of rusting and decrepit bridges, among other infrastructure, and the need for funds to repair them. This was the decade when a new bridge was built and opened in just over a year - a compliment to the capacity of professionals to work fast when needed.

This was the decade when the new President Barack Obama, campaigning on something called an "infrastructure bank," persuaded a relatively compliant Congress into appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars for all types of infrastructure as an investment in the future and a means to jump-start the economy. Not incidentally, this spending included roughly $14 billion for intercity train travel, including high-speed rail - the first significant investment in train travel in at least a generation.

This was a decade in which China, India, Korea and other developing countries built highways, airports, entire new subway systems and high-speed rail lines at furious rates. It was the decade that breathtakingly beautiful bridges opened in Europe, like the Millau Viaduct in France and the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. This rising tide of mega projects would help pressure the United States to at least contemplate spending and investing more on similar projects.

It was the decade of Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect and engineer who seamlessly joined the worlds of engineering and architecture in fantastic bridges and train stations all over the world, including a new train station at Ground Zero in New York City.

It was of course the decade of 9/11, when terrorists used airplanes to attack skyscrapers and office buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C. The sole benefit of this tragedy is that it got people thinking more about the machinery of life they so often took for granted - from airports, airplanes and security lines to water systems and ports.

It was the decade when we began to use our streets more wisely. Rather than just being concourses for cars, streets were opened to cyclists, pedestrians and even loungers. Cities from Chattanooga, Tenn., to St. Louis began converting one-way streets back to two-way streets, to better accommodate a diverse street environment. The New York City Department of Transportation commissioner converted busy streets in Times Square into well used parks and plazas for locals and tourists.

It was a decade when we began to understand better how infrastructure is paid for - or not. There was greater acceptance that government subsidizes all forms of transportation, and that no mode pays for itself. The latest on roads was a 2009 study by the Texas Transportation Institute, which concluded that "there is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today." A typical example was a highway outside Houston that was projected to cost $1 billion over its 40-year life span and generate only $162 million in gas taxes.

With no mode of transportation paying for itself, it was easier to start discussing in reasonable tones which transportation mode was best in a given situation. To be "mode-neutral" was another concept that came about this last decade.

This was a decade of increased interest in and use of trains, buses and other forms of transit. For the first time in perhaps a century, transit ridership often grew faster than car ridership. Cities approved dozens of streetcar and light rail lines around the country.

It was a decade where "green" or "smart" infrastructure came into being, when a water engineer was as likely to recommend protecting a watershed as building a new filtration plant. It was a decade that saw the rise - and then mostly the fall - of private companies buying or managing public transportation infrastructure. It was a decade when New York City finally started construction of its long-delayed 2nd Avenue subway.

Some may counter that all this thought and talk about infrastructure has not translated into a resurgence of infrastructure spending. True. But it's a necessary first step. This decade gave us a bumpy ride economically, as well as in terms of war, terrorism and other big subjects. But in terms of infrastructure, I think we're getting somewhere.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist |