America’s Outdated Infrastructure
Thomas Friedman laments that said state of America’s transportation infrastructure.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Singapore. In J.F.K.’s waiting lounge we could barely find a place to sit. Eighteen hours later, we landed at Singapore’s ultramodern airport, with free Internet portals and children’s play zones throughout. We felt, as we have before, like we had just flown from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.
How could this be? We are a great power. How could we be borrowing money from Singapore? Maybe it’s because Singapore is investing billions of dollars, from its own savings, into infrastructure and scientific research to attract the world’s best talent — including Americans.
Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that Singapore Changi Airport just opened in 1981 whereas JFK has been open since 1948? Or that the former is the shining spotlight of a wealthy city-state whereas the latter is one of three major airports in the New York metropolitan area and one of dozens in relatively close proximity?
Similarly, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof is brand, spanking new, having opened in 2006. Penn Station opened in 1910.
That Singapore and Berlin have newer and more impressive transportation hubs than New York City is almost assuredly not related to savings rates. If we were to build new airports or train stations, we’d certainly not do so with cash on the barrel head; we’d issue bonds.
The problem is that it’s almost impossible to get approval to undertake such massive projects. We’ve got an incredibly decentralized system that creates powerful inertia for the status quo. Local interests would rebel against putting a new airport anywhere near them because of the externalities involved. State, local, and federal authorities would vie with themselves and dozens of private stakeholders as to what share each would assume of the costs. State and federal regulators would put up all manner of obstacles to the project.
What we wind up doing in most cases is piecemeal renovation and expansion of existing facilities. Which, incidentally, has been happening at JFK in phases throughout its existence and, most notably, since 1998. But that approach guarantees that it’ll never be the architectural marvel of a brand new facility built without these constraints.
UPDATE: I should have completed the circle by noting, as Dave Schuler has, that Singapore decidedly lacks those constraints.
Indirect hat tip to John Cole, who focused on an entirely different aspect of Friedman’s column.