"NO WAY!!!" That was my reaction when I read in the Wall Street Journal that counties, cities, and towns have decided instead of ponying up the money to fix decaying roads that they'll simply rip them up and revert them to gravel. Then I read in the New York Times that Colorado Springs is turning off a third of its street lights. Clayton County, a suburb of Atlanta, completely shut down its bus system, stranding 84,000 daily riders. Public schools in Hawaii shut down 17 Fridays last year. In Colorado Springs, where they've drastically cut their police force, estimates show a 23% chance that all patrol units will be busy when someone calls the police. Again, all I can think is "NO WAY!!!"
When I get past the initial shock of how stupid those ideas seem to be, I try to think about whether they might make sense given the reality that states and localities are facing unprecedented budget crises. Reverting to gravel roads, shutting off street lights, cutting bus service, and furloughing schoolchildren make sense I suppose, if paving the roads, lighting the streets, running public transportation, and educating children on Fridays was never anything more than money-is-easy-let-the-good-times-roll pork - niceties.
My guess is that in many cases those activities were part of the necessary infrastructure that we all expect in America. I imagine that paving roads in rural farming communities allows farmers to more easily, more quickly, and less expensively take their products to market. That allows them to stay competitive. Public transportation allows even those who can't afford (or choose not) to drive a car to contribute to the national economy through work away from home. I imagine that well-lit streets make those Colorado neighborhoods (all else equal) attractive places to live, work, and play.
Why is that all important? It's important first because it is a quality of life issue. And in the still-richest country in the world, shouldn't all Americans have a good quality of life - like drivable roads, public transportation, reliable schooling, and safe streets? But the importance of adequate infrastructure in America goes far beyond that. It goes to our ability to compete in an increasingly global world. Think about it this way: China is set to have a higher-quality infrastructure that the U.S. in just 10 years. China! 10 years!
I've written before about how we need to do more - how we need to repair our aging (and increasingly dangerous) roadways, bridges, water and sewer systems, and electric grid. I've written about how we need to build up our infrastructure - including the Internet - to compete with countries that are already far ahead of us.
How did we get here? How did a country that built a 42,795-mile long interstate highway system, that extended electricity into even the most remote communities, that pioneered the Internet, come to a point where we are unpaving roads, turning off streetlights, and "furloughing" school children?
It's true that infrastructure costs money. The bill to bring us up to a world-competitiveness level is astounding: $417-532 billion in Arizona alone. But building the interstate railways, highways, electric grid, and Internet were expensive projects, too. Yet they allowed American businesses to flourish - and America to become the world's most powerful economy. Those kinds of grandiose national projects are part of what defines America, and part of what has made us competitive.
Lest I sound like a spend, spend, spend kind of guy, let me say that I understand the necessity of fiscal prudence. But if we destroy American businesses' ability to compete (by unpaving the roads they use to deliver their wares, for example) or we make our cities unattractive for global companies (by shutting off streetlights, for example), or we fail to educate the next generation of American competitors, then we are destroying the government's revenue base - making everything worse in the end.
So let's get together and think about some innovative ways to rebuild, maintain, and extend the kind of infrastructure we need to compete even when governments' coffers are bare. Some ideas? What about public-private-partnerships? Or demand management (including, for example, use-based pricing structures). Or, as Paul Krugman has suggested, selling Treasury bonds and distributing the proceeds to cash-strapped state and local governments. Or the creation of a national infrastructure bank that would provide low-cost loans for public or private entities to build and operate critical infrastructure.
I certainly don't have all the answers, but the point is that there are things we can do to be fiscally prudent and protect America's competitiveness. If we don't evoke that quintessentially American "we can do anything" attitude now I do fear that we will be, as Krugman suggested, "on the unlit, unpaved road to nowhere."
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