Whose Infrastructure?

David Brooks wrote a column yesterday about the Obama’s infrastructure stimulus. On the face of it, Brooks makes a great point:

It would be great if Obama’s spending, instead of just dissolving into the maw of construction, would actually encourage the clustering and leave a legacy that would be visible and beloved 50 years from now.

To take advantage of the growing desire for community, the Obama plan would have to do two things. First, it would have to create new transportation patterns. The old metro design was based on a hub-and-spoke system — a series of highways that converged on an urban core. But in an age of multiple downtown nodes and complicated travel routes, it’s better to have a complex web of roads and rail systems.

Second, the Obama stimulus plan could help localities create suburban town squares. Many communities are trying to build focal points. The stimulus plan could build charter schools, pre-K centers, national service centers and other such programs around new civic hubs.

This kind of stimulus would be consistent with Obama’s campaign, which was all about bringing Americans together in new ways. It would help maintain the social capital that’s about to be decimated by the economic downturn.

But then you start think about how people got out there in the first place. The exurbs were built on a subsidy of cheap gasoline and easy credit. And the exurban pioneer is someone who refused to make the political and social compromises–public transportation, the competing claims of neighbors through taxes, and so on. That’s fine but now the exurban pioneer feels lonely and Brooks thinks we should be spending the infrastructure stimulus on projects to build communities out there.

But alas, there’s no evidence so far that the Obama infrastructure plan is attached to any larger social vision. In fact, there is a real danger that the plan will retard innovation and entrench the past. [ . . . ]

It’s also before the spending drought that is bound to follow the spending binge. Because we’re going to be spending $1 trillion now on existing structures and fading industries, there will be less or nothing in 2010 or 2011 for innovative transport systems, innovative social programs or anything else.

Before the recession hit, we were enjoying a period of urban and suburban innovation. We could have been on the verge of a transportation revolution. It looks as if the Obama infrastructure plan may freeze that change, not fuel it.

How the United States could live through the biggest boom ever experienced while simultaneously neglecting basic systems like electricity, roads and schools is a scandal that hasn’t been explained. Maybe part of the problem has been tax competition by communities trying to keep folks from moving away to new developments far on the edge of the city? Maybe it’s something else. But to complain about the missed opportunity of the infrastructure stimulus without taking a look at the massive misallocation of funds in the form of tax cuts and military spending on an unnecessary war would seem to invalidate the complaints.


This Old House
New York Times, December 9, 2008

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