Kotkin on infrastructure investmentsThe Wall Street Journal opinion page has been featuring Joel Kotkin more frequently lately, the most recent one being on infrastructure underinvestment in American cities, as politicians overfocus on "sexier" investments like stadiums and convention centers (seven-day nonsubscriber link, WSJ permalink, Kotkin site permalink). Some excerpts, including the Houston ones:
Two years ago, as floodwaters overcame the tired defenses of New Orleans, American cities got a wake-up call about the dangers of inadequate infrastructure. But most urban leaders went back to sleep. Since then the occasional disaster, such as the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis, has been followed by tut-tutting. But if history is a guide, the rhetoric will be followed by another tap of the snooze button.Even in a digital economy, physical infrastructure still counts for a lot - and seems to be something Houston and Texas excel at with the port, airports, highways, and a strong electrical grid (remember the California blackouts?).
Rather than deal with the expensive and difficult task of retrofitting the sinews of commerce and communication -- bridges, tunnels, roads, rail lines, ports, sewers, and drainage systems -- America's urban powers focus on the ephemeral and the glitzy. They emphasize not brick and mortar, but sports stadia, convention centers, arts palaces, dubiously effective new light-rail lines, hotels and condo projects.
Instead of returning, many evacuees -- including teachers, businesspeople, health-service workers and the working poor -- appear likely to stay in Atlanta, Houston, or Dallas, where there are prospects for middle-class job-seekers and their families. These cities, particularly the Texas ones, have made significant investments in new roads, airports and waterways.
Lack of broad opportunities was the most-often cited reason by evacuees in Houston for not returning to the place they all consider home. "[Houston] is a place where people go to get ahead," says Crystal Walker, a native of New Orleans and a former student at predominantly African-American Southern University. "New Orleans -- it will always be my first love -- but there are better opportunities here for my kids."
The ultimate question here is that of priorities. Yes, artists and cultural institutions have always been hallmarks of great cities. But underpinning that efflorescence since the earliest times has been critical commitments to such mundane things as water systems, canals, dikes and protective walls -- the economic infrastructure that supports the rest.
Although detested by many of today's leading urbanists, the highway system allowed firms and individuals to spread more efficiently into the suburban periphery and into rural areas, creating the modern, dispersed multipolar metropolis. By some estimates, it has also returned more than six dollars in increased productivity for each dollar invested. According to one federal study, it has brought an estimated $1 trillion in producer cost reductions.
Nevertheless, few politicians seem interested in a coherent "back to basics" infrastructure investment strategy, except as a potential opportunity for pork-barrel spending. Until they are, we can look forward to more natural disasters, bridge collapses, subway malfunctions and power shortages. What happened in New Orleans two years ago could become not the exception, but the emblem of a troubled American future.
Have a great holiday weekend.