Wonkblog: Infrastructure

Are hydrogen cars the wave of the future? Toyota thinks so.

Are hydrogen cars the wave of the future? Toyota thinks so.

The current conventional wisdom is that plug-in electric vehicles will be the clean, sleek cars of tomorrow. Think of Tesla's Model S or Chevrolet's Volt. These cars get most of the media attention, and policymakers tend to toss tax breaks their way.

Not all automakers, however, are persuaded that plug-ins are the only way to go. This month, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai all announced plans to produce hydrogen fuel-cell passenger vehicles in the next few years. These cars will run on compressed hydrogen — and emit only water vapor as exhaust.

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Now is the time to be an infrastructure hawk, not a deficit hawk

Now is the time to be an infrastructure hawk, not a deficit hawk

There's a far better case right now for being an infrastructure hawk than a deficit hawk.

Deficit hawks tend to have two worries. The first is a practical concern about interest rates. Too much government borrowing can, in a healthy economy, begin to "crowd out" private borrowing. That means interest rates rise and the economy slows.

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U.S. infrastructure spending has plummeted since 2008

Not surprisingly, the collapse of a bridge along Interstate 5 in Washington state yesterday has revived the long-standing debate over whether Congress should spend more to repair the nation's aging roads and bridges.

It's worth being very clear upfront that the I-5 bridge in question wasn't considered "structurally deficient" in any way — the bridge collapse is being blamed on a truck bumping an overhead girder. All we do know is that the bridge was sort of old. (Fortunately, no one died or was seriously injured.)

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The saddest bit of legislative text we've seen all week

The saddest bit of legislative text we've seen all week

Here it is:



This is only one small bit of a draft of the Water Resources Development Act of 2013, which is currently being marked up in the Senate and will cover everything from flood prevention to harbor restoration. And it actually makes an important point. [ Update: See below.] Still, the way it's phrased is undeniably amusing.

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WonkTalk: How bad is America's infrastructure, really?

Suzy Khimm and I discuss a new report card that gives U.S. infrastructure a D+. Things aren't quite so bleak as they sound! Also, there's some discussion of immigration and the ups and downs of America's "virtual fence" at our border later on in the segment:

By the way, you can subscribe to the podcast version of our Wonktalk segments from iTunes here.

Further reading:

--America's infrastructure gets a D+. That's not as bad as it sounds.

--A longer look at the "public-private partnership" model for building roads, highways, and rail projects.

America's infrastructure gets a D+. That's not as bad as it sounds.

There's bad news and surprisingly good news in the latest report card on U.S. infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The gloomy bit: America's infrastructure only warrants a D+, with the ASCE estimating that we'll need to spend an extra $1.6 trillion between now and 2020 to patch things up.

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Washington should be worrying about education, infrastructure and health care

Washington should be worrying about education, infrastructure and health care

Earlier today I tweeted, "If we got education, health care and infrastructure right, a lot of our other economic problems would take care of themselves." Ted Glass spoke for many when he replied, "Is that all?"

It's a tall order, I admit. But Washington is spending all its time right now pursuing a "grand bargain" between the two parties, and that's an even taller, and perhaps even impossible, order.

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Bad news: The U.S. power grid is getting pricier, less reliable

Bad news: The U.S. power grid is getting pricier, less reliable

U.S. electric customers are now paying 43 percent more to build and maintain local power grids than they did back in 2002. At the same time, the grid is alsobecoming less reliable, with blackouts now taking 20 percent longer to fix.

Those stats come from this great AP story by Jonathan Fahey, who points out that grid costs are rising "about twice as fast as the rate of inflation." Also note that the outage figures do not include blackouts after major storms — such as the 8.5 million who lost power after Hurricane Sandy. These are just smaller, mundane outages:

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Is Congress really going to miss its free lunch on infrastructure?

Is Congress really going to miss its free lunch on infrastructure?

Since the election, there have been hints that we could be entering a period with some actual productive, bipartisan dealmaking, most explicitly on immigration reform. But the Republican reaction to Obama's expected proposals on infrastructure in Tuesday's State of the Union address may be a better indicator of whether we are in for a year of real legislative give-and-take—or a return of the ugly politics of the last several years.

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McKinsey: World needs $57 trillion in infrastructure by 2030. Yes, trillion with a 't'

McKinsey: World needs $57 trillion in infrastructure by 2030. Yes, trillion with a 't'

High up on the list of stuff that President Obama wants and Congress won't provide is more funding for infrastructure programs. His American Jobs Act proposal from 2011 includes $50 billion in spending to improve railroads, airports and roads, and another $10 billion to inaugurate an infrastructure bank to fund other programs going forward. During the fiscal cliff negotiations, he reportedly wanted $50 billion to $75 billion in infrastructure spending in exchange for cuts.

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How easy is it to shut off a country's Internet?

How easy is it to shut off a country's Internet?

At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, just about everyone in Syria discovered that they no longer had access to the Internet. As my colleague Olga Khazan explains, the most likely explanation is that the Syrian government intentionally caused the blackout to make life difficult for rebels inside the country.

So just how easy is it to sever a country's Internet connection? Over at the Web monitoring firm Renesys, James Cowie has a long post arguing that it varies from country to country. The two key variables, he writes, are infrastructure and how many companies offer connections into and out of the country:

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‘We don’t need to build more highways out in the suburbs’

Last night, the Daily Caller unearthed a 2007 speech by Barack Obama in New Hampshire that was deemed a “bombshell.” You can watch the speech here and judge for yourself, but we were struck by one line that the Drudge Report has been highlighting, in which Obama said, “We don’t need to build more highways out in the suburbs …”

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Whatever happened to Obama’s goal of universal broadband access?

Whatever happened to Obama’s goal of universal broadband access?

Does anyone remember when the Obama administration promised to bring “true broadband [to] every community in America”? The Republican Party definitely does, and its 2012 platform criticizes the president for not making any progress on this pledge:

“The current Administration has been frozen in the past…. It inherited from the previous Republican Administration 95 percent coverage of the nation with broadband. It will leave office with no progress toward the goal of universal coverageafter spending $7.2 billion more. That hurts rural America, where farmers, ranchers, and small business manufacturers need connectivity to expand their customer base and operate in real time with the worlds producers.

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Sick of the gas tax? A mileage-based tax might be a better option.

Sick of the gas tax? A mileage-based tax might be a better option.

For decades, Congress and the states have largely funded roads, highways and bridges through a tax on gasoline. And the system has worked reasonably well. But there are just a few hitches. For one, the tax is politically difficult to hike, even when infrastructure starts wearing down. And second, as cars get more fuel-efficient, gas-tax revenue starts plummeting, even though people are still using the roads.

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India’s infrastructure woes, in two charts

Last week’s massive electric-grid failure in India didn’t just leave 700 million people without electricity for days. It also gave rise to a sharp debate on what the blackouts might mean for the future economic prospects of the world’s second most-populous country. Over the weekend, Jonathan Shainin wrote a colorful dispatch for the New Yorker noting that the grid collapse provoked plenty of anxiety among Indian politicians about the country’s status as a rising superpower.

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Highway bill showdown: Five things to know

Highway bill showdown: Five things to know

With all that Supreme Court health-care business out of the way, Congress can now turn to other pressing matters … like making sure that billions of dollars in highway projects across the country don’t screech to a halt when funding expires Saturday. That’s right, another infrastructure armageddon is looming.

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The origins of New York City’s subway

The origins of New York City’s subway

Tim Lee offers up a brief history of New York City’s subway system, based on Clifton Hood’s book “722 Miles.” Private companies had been building above-ground lines in the 19th century on their own. But there was no way to build an underground system without public subsidies:

In the early 20th century, there was widespread skepticism of government subsidies for transit projects. But city planners found they couldn’t convince private firms to create subways without sweetening the pot. For example, when the government sought bids for private firms to construct a subway line without subsidies in 1892, they didn’t receive a single serious proposal. This despite the fact that the 1892 franchise would have offered the winning bidder favorable terms, with minimal regulatory oversight, and run for 999 years.

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Is Rahm’s plan to rebuild Chicago brilliant — or disastrous?

Is Rahm’s plan to rebuild Chicago brilliant — or disastrous?

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to spend $7.2 billion to rebuild his city’s aging infrastructure. But he doesn’t want to raise taxes. So, on Tuesday, Chicago’s city council decided on a different approach, approving a new infrastructure bank to lure in private investors.

Here’s the basic setup: The Infrastructure Trust, a nonprofit, would review a variety of agency proposals to upgrade public works projects. Many would get financed with city money, backed by bonds. But there are other infrastructure projects that actually generate revenue — and these could, potentially, attract interest from the private sector. As the Chicago Sun-Times notes, examples might include a bus rapid-transit system with higher fares for faster service or a high-speed Internet network that charges fees for users. In these cases, willing investors would chip in money upfront and reap the returns over time.

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Can passenger rail ever be profitable? Florida’s about to find out.

Can passenger rail ever be profitable? Florida’s about to find out.

One frequent criticism of passenger rail is that it rarely pays for itself. The trains typically require hefty public subsidies — Amtrak, for one, has received more than $30 billion from Congress since 1971 — and that makes new lines politically difficult to build here in the United States.

So it’s worth following this intriguing bit of train news out of Florida. In late March, Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) announced plans to build “All Aboard Florida,” a private passenger rail line that would connect Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa and Orlando. At least for now, FECI is planning to do this without government subsidies — which could make this the first self-funding passenger rail line in the United States in half a century. So can private rail make a comeback?

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More states privatizing their infrastructure. Are they making a mistake?

More states privatizing their infrastructure. Are they making a mistake?

Say you’re a state politician. Your local roads, bridges, and transit systems are all in dire need of upgrades. But there’s not much money left. Budgets are crunched. No one wants to raise taxes. And Congress is throttling back on transportation funding. So what’s left? Privatization, of course.

Maryland is the latest state looking to join the fray. At the moment, its legislature is mulling a bill that would encourage the government to seek out private companies to build, operate, and maintain the state’s roads, bridges, and public buildings. Virginia adopted this approach nearly a decade ago. And a growing number of states — from California to Florida — have been bringing in private capital to bankroll their transportation needs. But is privatizing infrastructure really such a good idea?

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Column: Land of (missed) opportunity

After the failure of the 1973 Geneva Peace Conference, Israeli diplomat Abba Eban sighed that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” In recent years, the same could be said of Americans.

Two months ago, the U.S. marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Sadly, we commemorated a tragedy without celebrating much triumph. The post-9/11 moment was an unheralded instance of national — even global — unity. The Bush administration could have used it for almost anything. And, to be fair, it did. The nation burned trillions of dollars in two wars and a budget-busting round of tax cuts. The president told us to go shopping, and the Federal Reserve held interest rates at extraordinarily low levels. The result? Deficits and a credit bubble. That was missed opportunity No. 1.

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Fixing old roads instead of building new ones

Fixing old roads instead of building new ones

When it comes to infrastructure spending, politicians tend to prefer gleaming new roads and highways over humdrum repairs. A brand-new highway is exciting: there’s a ribbon-cutting, there’s less need to clog up existing roads with orange cones and repair crews. So it’s not surprising that 57 percent of all state highway funding goes toward new construction, even though this represents just 1.3 percent of the overall system. Yet many transportation reformers have long argued that this bias against fixing what we already have is a terrible way to do business.

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Can’t Congress agree on highways, at least?

To hear Eric Cantor tell it, the president’s jobs bill is dead and rotting in the House — at least in its current form. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s ballyhooed jobs speech last month was totally ineffective. In fact, it already seems to have quietly nudged the dial on at least one key issue, prodding the House GOP to consider a bigger transportation spending bill.


(David McNew/Getty)
Some quick context: Gas-tax revenue, as we know, is shrinking over time: The tax isn’t indexed to inflation, and Americans have cut down on driving during the recession. That means there’s less and less federal money to bankroll new highway and transit projects. (True, Congress could always just raise the gas tax, but, well...) So, earlier this year, House Republicans unveiled a six-year, $230 billion transportation bill that would’ve represented a 30 percent cut in spending from current levels. That’s all we can afford, they said, with current gas-tax levels. Even Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica sounded apologetic about it.

That proposal sits uneasily with interest groups. Unions clasped hands with the Chamber of Commerce and argued that a sharp cut in infrastructure spending didn’t make a whole lot of sense right now. State transportation officials moaned loudly. And Obama’s jobs speech, which included a call for $50 billion in new infrastructure spending, put Republicans on the defensive. The result? Mica is now toiling away on a new $300 billion highway bill that would keep funding at current levels for the next six years. Problem solved, right? Well, sort of.

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GOP mayors like Obama’s jobs plan. GOP governors don’t.

GOP mayors like Obama’s jobs plan. GOP governors don’t.

Republicans in Washington have little love for President Obama’s jobs plan and his proposal to pay for it. But the president may find a warmer reception from Republicans governing on the local level. The U.S. Conference of Mayors--a bipartisan national group for mayors of major cities--has openly embraced the American Jobs Act, with key Republican mayors offering high praise for the president’s infrastructure spending plan. And the group has come to Washington this week to press that point upon Congress, the White House, and the supercommittee.

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