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Our crumbling infrastructure

 

No matter how big the issue — national security, health care, gun rights — it’s been nearly impossible for Washington lawmakers to find common ground given the deep rancor and partisan division among them. But fixing the nation’s aging, crumbling infrastructure seems that rare area where everyone from the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce to progressive Democrats see the need for action.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the nation’s highways and bridges face an $808.2 billion backlog of investment spending, including $479.1 billion in critically needed repairs. More than two-thirds of the nation’s roads and nearly 143,000 bridges are classified in “dire need” of repair or upgrades.

The election of Donald Trump, a career real estate developer, could finally break the longstanding stalemate between Republicans and Democrats over what to fix and how to pay for it.

On the campaign trail, Trump broadly proposed $1 trillion in federal spending to repair and rebuild roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, railroads, and ports, as well as other vital but less-visible systems involving energy, water, and telecommunications.

Trump argues that having a national infrastructure that’s “second to none” will enhance economic growth and U.S. competitiveness and create millions of well-paying jobs. Since the election, he has signaled that getting an infrastructure plan off the ground will be a priority in his administration’s first 100 days.

The country indeed has many needs, said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School(HBS), who convened a major leadership summit on infrastructure at the School in 2014 and has written extensively on the topic. Our ports are clogged and need dredging to improve the flow of goods; railroad tracks need modernizing; airport communications technology needs updating and expansion; urban mass transit is old and inadequate; and bridges and roads urgently need repairs that have been deferred for years, she said.

Locally, Massachusetts still has a colossal maintenance backlog that wasn’t cleared by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, President Obama’s $830 billion effort to stimulate a moribund economy during the last recession. Federal funding was fast-tracked to states, but only for work that was “shovel ready,” a stipulation that critics say meant the money didn’t always go to the most essential projects.

“We shouldn’t be talking about building anything new” in the MBTA system, said Alan Altshuler, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and the Ruth and Frank Stanton Research Professor in Urban Policy and Planning. Instead, Massachusetts ought to find the $1 billion-plus necessary to repair and modernize the MBTA rather than plow ahead with plans to expand rail service just because advocates are pressing hard for it.

Alan Altshuler believes the MBTA should be repaired and modernized before any more expansion projects are approved. File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

“The greatest danger to the Boston region is not that we failed to build the South Coast rail line or the connection between North and South Stations, but that the existing system collapses — and the Red Line is at great risk,” he said.

While it’s true that repairs are less expensive than new construction, “if we repair without reinventing, we’re not necessarily solving the problem,” said Kanter. To do that, the nation needs to take advantage of its status as the world’s leading innovator in information and communications technology by incorporating that into smart roads and other data-enabled transportation tools, such as ride-hailing services or “Street Bump,” an app developed by the city of Boston that allows volunteer drivers to transmit data wirelessly about poor road conditions to public works crews more quickly and accurately.

Because transportation needs are naturally intertwined, the federal government should take a holistic approach to infrastructure to optimize connections between air, rail and ground systems. “If all we do is fix the potholes, then I don’t think that’s enough,” said Kanter.

A snow job in the offing?

Historically, politicians have turned to infrastructure as the antidote to economic downturns. Proponents say that in addition to addressing a critical structural need, such spending stimulates economic growth, generates tax revenues, and, more importantly, puts people to work.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt rolled out ambitious efforts to build public works projects that would create a vast number of construction jobs. New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, the Lincoln Tunnel, and the Triborough Bridge were all built as a result of FDR’s infrastructure push. Advocates today point to that record as evidence that a similar undertaking will directly benefit blue-collar Americans, among the hardest hit by globalization and technological change.

But Harvard economist Edward Glaeser says infrastructure building is not a tool to fight joblessness and that Americans should be “wary” of trying to draw parallels between the two eras.

Projects were simpler and easier to turn around back then. The Hoover Dam, for example, was built in five years; Boston’s “Big Dig” took 25 to complete. Projects now require approvals from multiple stakeholders both inside and outside government, which slows progress and drives up costs. Simply handing shovels to the unemployed isn’t realistic anymore given the technical complexity of today’s civil construction projects.

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