How (not) to address America’s transportation infrastructure

Americans have been told with monotony that intelligent investment in transportation infrastructure will help grow the economy and create good paying jobs from both sides of the political divide. Still it’s plain by now that between sequestration and budget cutting to deal with America’s deficits, the country will not do the unthinkable and move aggressively to acquire the additional transportation capacity we need to grow the economy. So we have to consider other courses of action.

In simple terms, we have only three options.

Option 1: Do nothing. Forget about spending huge sums of money to build the new transportation capacity our economy needs. Learn to live with what we’ve got, and stop bellyaching about bottlenecks that diminish our mobility.

Leave earlier in the morning to accommodate a more time-consuming trip to work; have dinner an hour or two later in the evening after the kids are in bed. Make fewer discretionary trips. Spend more time at home watching TV. At least this way we’ll be able to keep more income in our own pockets instead of paying it out in higher prices and taxes to support transportation.

Of course, this assumes our incomes won’t shrink as transportation bottlenecks choke off economic activity, leaving a smaller pie to be divided among more people as the nation’s population increases.

The do-nothing option will force us to pay higher prices for consumer goods and services because of the added costs congestion imposes on their producers. Our reaction to higher prices will likely be to buy less. With consumer spending accounting for 70 percent of the nation’s economy, the result will ultimately be a lower standard of living.

Sharp entrepreneurs will exploit this decline of American society. As Rhett Butler told Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” “There are as many fortunes to be made from the decline of a society as from building one.”

Let’s keep our fingers crossedthat we can be among the lucky few.

Option 2: Have the federal government move aggressively to deliberately shrink the nation’s economy to a level where its mobility needs can be comfortably met by existing transportation capacity.

The assumption here is that a formal national policy of planned shrinkage can spread the inevitable pain more equitably among the American people. The main focus of this policy would have to be the nation’s top 100 metropolitan areas because that’s where most of the economic action is. They generate three quarters of the nation’s gross domestic product and are home to two thirds of the people. Their dominance as economic engines means the effect of shrinking their economies will spill over to the rest of the nation, placing all but the very rich on a low-cal diet of reduced living standards.

On the other hand, think of the money we’ll save by not paying for elaborate new transportation programs, even if most of the savings quickly run through our fingers to pay the extra costs imposed by a society in decline.

Option 3: Convert our top 100 metropolitan areas into true 24-hour societies so we can make use of existing transportation capacity now lying idle during the hours when most people sleep.

By spreading economic activity more evenly throughout the day, we can effectively acquire new transportation capacity without spending billions to build it. Just like factories that operate three shifts per day so the money invested in their plant and equipment can generate profits around the clock.

Roughly half the people living in each of these 100 metropolitan areas would have to switch from living during the day; working, shopping going to school or religious services and seeking medical attention at night.

Of course, the social engineering needed to accomplish such a transformation would be overwhelming. Some heroic regulation and policing would no doubt be needed to assure the right balance (as defined by government planners) between the day and night-time populations.

But just think how cheaply we could obtain additional transportation capacity this way. It’s for the best, right?

originally published: March 19, 2013