Spotlight on Infrastructure After Harvey

Spotlight on Infrastructure After Harvey
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The recent tragic events in Houston and across the Gulf Coast once again demonstrated the woeful inadequacy of our infrastructure. Hopefully, some good will come of Hurricane Harvey. Hopefully, it will jump-start the long-awaited Trump initiative on infrastructure, which may be the one issue that could unite this country.

Northeastern University’s post-disaster resiliency expert Daniel Aldrich notes the need for better storm water drainage systems and for fortifying existing infrastructure -- and not just in Houston. Helping promote such investments represents perhaps the last best chance for creating a significant Trump legacy.

Once a leader in world infrastructure, the United States now ranks 11th in the overall quality of its infrastructure, according to the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index. This decline has consequences. In California, for example, the lack of investment in water storage both worsened the recent drought and reduced the state’s ability to take advantage of heavy rains when they arrived.

A concerted effort to restore our nation’s bridges, roads, harbors and other critical infrastructure would also mark a significant break from the Obama era stimulus which focused more on propping up renewable energy and often underused mass transit systems. Meanwhile, our overall infrastructure continued to deteriorate during the Great Recession, even with the stimulus, with spending in decline from over $300 billion in 2008 to under $250 billion in 2013.

Spending Smartly

“Efficiency is doing things right,” legendary management guru Peter F. Drucker once proclaimed. “Effectiveness is doing the right things.” In the context of infrastructure, being effective means placing our bets on things that are really needed, and could reward our society with greater productivity, wealth and new employment.

At Newgeography.com, where I serve as executive editor, we recently carried a report from the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism, "Doing the Right Things Right,” which lays out what an infrastructure strategy would look like given current budget constraints. The United States faces a national debt of $20 trillion, while the federal government deficit was projected to reach $693 billion for fiscal year 2017.

A strong U.S. transportation infrastructure system facilitates economic growth, job creation, a better standard of living and less poverty by minimizing travel times and improving labor market efficiency. Yet, as "Doing the Right Things Right" makes clear, not all investments are the same, or should receive federal subsidies, whether for direct expenditures or to issue infrastructure bonds to support private investment. There have been too many examples of spending on lower priority infrastructure because politicians were more interested in securing pork, or votes, than accelerating economic growth or reducing constituents’ travel times.

To be sure, America's infrastructure has performed well enough to provide the highest standard of living for the largest number of people in the world. The legacy of earlier infrastructure decisions, such as the completion of the interstate highway system, is still evident. Overall, the amount of time America's commuters spend in peak period traffic congestion is generally better than that of international competitors.

Yet traffic problems are increasing in the nation's largest metropolitan areas. A recent study found that traffic congestion imposed $132 billion in excess fuel and time costs for automobile drivers and $28 billion in freight costs annually -- all ultimately absorbed by consumers.

The key question is how we meet these challenges. One proposed solution is to increase spending on traditional mass transit. This works well largely in “legacy cities” such as Washington, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York. The city of New York alone represents a remarkable 36 percent of all U.S. transit commuting, yet has only 3 percent of the jobs. Outside of these cities, the new transit projects, principally rail lines, have done little or nothing, as a recent report on transit from Chapman University demonstrates, to slow congestion or attract significant ridership.

Among 19 metropolitan areas that added high-capacity transit systems since 1980, both bus and rail, transit's market share has fallen from 4.7 to 4.6 percent compared to the last data before the systems opened. Transit has not, on balance, reduced solo driving, which increased from an average of 73.0 percent to 76.6 percent.

The cities with rail systems opening after the 1990 Census experienced a modest decline in transit work trip market share, from 3.8 percent in 1990 to 3.7 percent in 2013.

Take the absurd example of Los Angeles, which has spent over $15 billion trying to become what some mass transit enthusiasts call the “next great transit city.” Yet, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority system ridership stands at least 15 percent below 1985 levels, when there was only bus service, at a time when the population of Los Angeles County was 20 percent lower. Since 1990, transit’s work trip market share in the Los Angeles metropolitan area has dropped from 5.6 percent to 5.1 percent. No surprise, then, that according to a recent USC study, the new lines have done little or nothing to lessen congestion.

Doing Your Homework

The irony is that billions are being spent on these ineffective systems, when the places that depend on transit, like New York and Washington, are seeing their systems become less reliable and even dangerous. We are dumping money in some locations that don't work all that well, but can’t find funds to fix systems that remain essential to “legacy cities” with large downtowns ideal for transit ridership.

With the expense and ineffectiveness of new rail systems, it seems that the time has arrived for transit services that focus on less expensive bus systems, including those run by private companies, which can carry so many more riders for so much less in taxpayer subsidies. There are also opportunities to make lightly used but highly subsidized services more cost-effective by adding ride-hailing systems, like Uber and Lyft, cited as a factor in recent ridership declines in Los Angeles and even New York. In suburban San Francisco, a local transit operator has established a pilot program to extend service through ride-hailing and cancelled a lightly patronized bus route, reducing costs while providing quicker door-to-door service.

One of the most promising alternatives, virtually ignored by transit advocates, is to encourage options for working at home. In many metropolitan areas, more people already telecommute than take transit. Since 1980, the number of people working at home has grown three times that of transit riders. All this, at virtually no cost to taxpayers.

In the future, rapidly evolving autonomous technologies could make our present transit systems archaic in most cities. Under any circumstance, these advances seem likely to further weaken conventional transit. Given these trends, why base our transit policy on 19th century technologies when we are about to enter the third decade of the 21st?

Back to the Gulf: Resiliency, not Hysteria

“Smart growth” advocates have been quick to argue that Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented damage can be traced to Houston’s freewheeling, free-market approach to real estate development. Sure, the area got 50 inches of rain, but it fell both on communities that eschew strict zoning and those which embrace it. They somehow forget that a lesser storm, Hurricane Sandy, devastated the highly planned communities of greater New York just a few years ago, causing $19 billion in damage in the city alone – and with far less rain.

Rather than imitate Portland or San Francisco, Houston and other Gulf communities need to maintain policies that have allowed it to avoid the kind of insane price hikes one sees on the West Coast and some Northeastern housing markets. To force Houston to act like San Francisco would kill its economy. If Texas real estate prices approach California’s, people will simply move elsewhere, where prices are lower.

Some changes may be necessary, including “coastal restoration” efforts that limit the impact of storms like Harvey. Major engineering challenges, like building more water storage facilities and improved drainage, need to be imposed, as well.

What Houston needs, and would naturally adopt, is a kind of enlightened free market approach. After the devastation of Galveston in 1900 hurricane, Houston famously built a ship channel while Galveston built an elaborate sea wall; Houston is no less a creation of private innovation and government than New York or Los Angeles. Like America itself, Houston thrives by combining good public investment with a maximum of economic flexibility.

The more these decisions are made locally, by people who are directly impacted, the better. My colleague Tory Gattis, based in Houston, suggests that new developments and older ones “should be required to have adequate rainwater retention, either with ponds, tanks, or permeable surfaces.” There are already examples of some of this kind of planning, particularly in exurban communities such as the Woodlands. This may mitigate the ill effects of such storms, but not likely to prevent disasters like Harvey from inflicting huge damage.

These policies could mean, over time, that Houston and other Gulf communities might build an infrastructure more reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, scattered communities with ample open land around them. But the vision must be a localized one, not drawn from example of generally slower-growing, older regions facing very different natural challenges. The benefits to customizing local infrastructure is go beyond economic reality and even disaster mitigation. With enough focus on local needs, we need not wait for natural disasters to witness the heartwarming sights of multi-cultural first responders – and ordinary citizens – all pulling together. “Social networks and cohesion are an important part of recovery and survival,” professor Aldrich suggests. “Houston should be investing in bringing neighborhoods together.”

This is the real secret sauce for resiliency, as Houston has been showing throughout this crisis. The more that people who are impacted control the till, whether repairing levees, imposing regulations or planning transit systems, the better. Rather than let Leviathan rule and impose conformity, we should let regions -- whether in Texas or elsewhere -- figure out how to meet infrastructure challenges that effect every community differently.

Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow at Chapman University and the executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His latest book is “The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us.”

Wendell Cox is the principal of Demographia, a public-policy consultancy, and a senior fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, based in Houston.



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