The infrastructure spending we sorely need

In the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post, the Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards questioned the utility of federal investments in infrastructure. His special target? Dam construction of the past century by the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Edwards also went after urban light-rail and inter-city high-speed rail. He was especially hard on federal-sector investments. For example, he pointed out that taxpayers have come out double losers from those dams – first paying to build them, and then footing the bill for the environmental damage. He suggested that private-sector infrastructure development  tended to introduce fewer such market distortions. He argued that state-level investment would at least have the merit of providing laboratories for exploring different approaches to the infrastructure challenge. A thoughtful piece, and well worth your read.

And also a serviceable foundation on which to build some additional thoughts. Here are a couple.

First, there are limits to the fifty-states=fifty-approaches to infrastructure idea. Suppose we tried that with the electrical grid…and some states put in 750,000-volts high-tension lines, with 60-cycle AC, while others preferred 500,000-volt lines at 30 Hz. AC. We might have learned about slight advantages of one over the other. But such inconsistencies would complicate moving to a regional grid, and realizing the fullest savings of electricity deregulation.

Bad enough when these disconnects occur internationally. Think of those adapters you carry with you on travel to match electrical outlets in those countries you visit. The change in railroad track gauge going from Spain to France. The awkwardness of metric versus the British systems of weights and measures. That bagful of battery chargers you’re toting around for all your personal IT. It’s taken us years to develop highway systems that are compatible state-to-state, etc. So, we need to think through those respects in which we want our infrastructure to meet standards, and those where we want to explore, and innovate, and try out new ideas.

More seriously, how about this one?

Suppose we’d been investing more all along on the infrastructure needed to observe the Earth, understand it, and provide science-based services such as environmental data collection, weather forecasts and climate outlooks, tsunami warnings, and space weather. Suppose we’d done more to locate and assess water resources and ore deposits and underground seams of coal, oil and natural gas? Suppose we’d financed more instruments to measure and monitor; communication systems to relay the data; and computers to digest the information? Suppose we’d done more to educate a cadre of professionals to provide expert advice on the environmental costs of building dams, the hazards risk of erecting cities in floodplains and on seismically-active rock formations; the loss of timber from forest fires?  Maybe we’d have begun much earlier to make the shift away from dams and increase our reliance on the natural flood protection and water storage provided by ecosystems. Maybe we’d have avoided some of those decisions that Edwards and others lament looking back.

And we wouldn’t have just saved money in the past. We’d still be saving money every day. For example, maybe by now we’d have in hand the information needed to evaluate the true environmental risks of fracking, so that we wouldn’t be forced to rely on mere conjecture. Or we’d be able to put a better price on carbon. Or optimize our mix of renewable and non-renewable resources.

Such information, though funded federally, is based on data gathered from multiple sources and on analysis developed at hundreds of universities and private-sector firms, as well as dozens of state and federal agencies. It’s therefore inherently diverse. Edwards’ laboratories? They’re already available.

So…let’s indeed be critical of past infrastructure investments. Hindsight once again proves to be 20-20. But let’s also look forward. Instead of repeating our 20th-century experience, let’s think about what 21st-century infrastructure would look like. Let’s realize that knowledge infrastructure – especially knowledge infrastructure that can improve all those other infrastructure decisions – from rail to highways to the next-generation airspace to water resource management – is a no-regrets infrastructure that is less likely to fail us.

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