The Infrastructure Stimulus Debate is Joined

Via Megan McArdle, the Infrastructure Stimulus Debate is Joined: Brooks vs Avent Bashing on Brooks

The point of the upcoming Surface Transportation Reauthorization is not really noted, though the lobbyists are certainly out (e.g.T4America)

My take

(1) The existing surface system (buses, rail, highways) is mature, it will not cease to be mature by throwing lots of dollars into new facilities, (no realistic amount of new facilities will obviate the existing system) but will slowly become senile (and yes, literally, collapse) if it isn't properly monitored and maintained. It is not sexy, it will not result in ribbon cuttings, but it is necessary to rebuilt what exists. Whether this can be successfully depoliticized I don't know, transforming surface transportation into a regulated public utility might be a first step. Nevertheless, the marginal benefits of new facilities have diminished as the existing system has built out, and the marginal costs have risen. The rate of return on new investments of the existing surface transportation technology is generally fairly small or negative. There are still of course selected useful projects, the likelihood these will be what is actually built with new funds in the current political/policy climate is small.

(2) Congestion as a problem has peaked. This does not mean I believe there is no congestion, just that it is not really growing. Vehicle travel has not risen for half-a-decade, and while it certainly depends some on the economy and gas prices, it more importantly depends on the finiteness of people's time. There is only so much travel people can do. The obvious solution to the remaining congestion is road pricing, which once the gas tax ceases to function as a revenue generator will be the natural replacement. A steady source of money tied directly to use would also help if surface transportation is organized as a utility.

(3) Over 40,000 people a year die on roads. Why is this not taken seriously? This calls for new strategies, namely taking the driver out of the loop. This is not an infrastructure problem per se (infrastructure is seldom the primary cause of crashes), rather it is a research program along the lines of the DARPA Urban Challenge that is required. Give more money to scientists and engineers, we can spend it too, with the salutary effects of stimulus and the ultimate benefit of at least one million extra Americans after 50 years. At $5 million per life, that is worth $5 trillion to our human capital stock.

(4) There is a huge correspondence problem with federal financing of transportation. Transportation is almost always a local issue. Why should Nevada's money go to Washington, DC to be spent in Iowa, and vice versa? Can't Nevada and Iowa separately figure out their priorities?

David Levinson

Network Reliability in Practice

Evolving Transportation Networks

Place and Plexus

The Transportation Experience

Access to Destinations

Assessing the Benefits and Costs of Intelligent Transportation Systems

Financing Transportation Networks

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This page contains a single entry by David Levinson published on November 1, 2008 7:26 AM.

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