National Transportation Debate In A Nutshell: Infrastructure Is Economic Destiny

Posted: March 12, 1990

On March 9, 1832, a 23-year-old candidate for the Illinois General Assembly told Sangamon County voters "my sentiments with regard to local affairs." His first sentiment was "the public utility of internal improvements," particularly "the opening of good roads (and) the clearing of navigable streams." Thus did Abraham Lincoln's public life commence with concern about what is now called "infrastructure."

Today Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, from Illinois, has the challenging task of selling a taxaphobic nation on the rationality of spending much more on infrastructure. Americans already spend $800 billion for transportation products and services each year. Eighteen percent of GNP is spent on transportation, which employs one-tenth of the work force. It is perhaps natural that the public considers infrastructure a banal subject. Natural, but unhistorical.

In 1816, John Calhoun introduced legislation for a federal program of internal improvements as a means of avoiding disunion. President James Madison, believing Congress not constitutionally empowered to do such things, vetoed it. So prosperous Northern states built their own improvements and the South sank into inferiority and increasing dependence on slavery.

Historian James McPherson writes that prior to 1815 most roads were rutted paths impassable in wet weather. Commerce depended on sailing ships and riverboats. The cost of moving goods 30 miles inland equaled the cost of moving them across the Atlantic. Trans-Atlantic trade exceeded inland commerce and economic growth barely exceeded population growth.

But then came all-weather macadamized roads. The Erie Canal ignited construction: 3,700 miles of canal by 1850. Next, railroads freed commerce

from frozen canals in winter, cut travel time from New York to Chicago from three weeks to two days, and cut the price of shipping a ton of wheat from Buffalo to New York from $100 to $10. The difference between the wholesale price of pork in Cincinnati and New York plummeted from $9.53 to $1.18. Suddenly urban workers had more money to spend on manufactured goods.

Today the condition of the infrastructure is just as dramatically connected with economic vitality. Unfortunately, the wearing out of America, which is one aspect of today's incontinent pursuit of current consumption, is accelerating. Since 1960, investment in infrastructure has fallen more than 50 percent as a percentage of GNP, which explains much of America's drop in productivity. Illustrations abound.

Of America's 575,000 highway bridges, 42 percent are structurally deficient (closed or restricted to light traffic) or functionally obsolete. A bridge fails every two days. Con-

sider one bridge with a light load of 2,000 cars and 200 trucks a day: If trucks must detour, adding five miles to their routes at 50 cents a mile, costs increase $182,500 per year. If cars must detour (figuring 20 cents a mile), the annual cost is $730,000.

Over the last two decades, traffic has grown five times faster than highway capacity. In the next two decades, congestion is projected to become five times worse. Airports anticipate a 72 percent increase in passenger volume in this decade; by 1997, 33 major airports are expected to experience, cumulatively, 20,000 hours of delays annually. More billions of gallons of gasoline and billions of dollars worth of aircraft fuel and flight crew time will be wasted yearly.

Time is indeed money and already billions of dollars are being lost because people and freight are congealed in traffic. There are three million truck, bus, taxi and delivery vehicle drivers stuck there, being paid by the hour. Transportation is 15 to 30 percent of the price of agriculture products. A worker delayed by even 10 minutes each way during 45 years of commuting wastes the equivalent of two working years. Slow, unpredictable traffic prevents businesses from relying on "just in time" delivery of raw materials and parts, a technique for reducing inventory costs.

You get the picture. The first Republican president certainly did. A crimson thread of consistency connects Lincoln's passion for internal improvements with his later mission of binding the nation together as a land of opportunity. The ninth Republican president, in his exuberance, understood the value of infrastructure abroad: Teddy Roosevelt built the Panama Canal.

Transportation and other infrastructure issues should bring out a strong Hamiltonian streak in American conservatives who too often talk the anachronistic language of Jeffersonian small-government sentimentality, of nostalgia for another America. In the debate now beginning about transportation policy, we shall see if the 18th Republican president is the kind of conservative who understands the need to spend in order to conserve and enlarge the nation's sinews.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|