Specialization and Politics and Principle

This article at the NYRB is a decent and perhaps typical opinion pieces about the current budget proposals. Something bugs me though. I think that the continuous need to place things within the political narrative is ultimately debilitating. Read the following:
There is some unreservedly good news, however. Obama is proposing substantial public investment. He would increase transportation infrastructure by 60 percent in the next six years, promising that four out of five Americans will have access to rail transport by 2035. (Though such plans continue to face stiff opposition from spend-nothing Republicans, as Florida governor Rick Scott showed in his stunt-like decision this week to return billions of dollars of federal financing that would have paid for high-speed rail in his state.)
Ok. Makes sense doesn't it? Public investment to spur the economy is a good idea. After all, there is plenty of surplus capital being held in private hands that will not be spent until the brains attached to those hands are confident that there will be demand for whatever products and services that capital will create. Of course, with high unemployment and the low availability of credit, there is no reason to be confident that that demand exists. By consuming more and by creating more jobs, public investment can raise demand and get capital flowing again. But while public investment is good, it operates, ultimately, on the same economic principles that private investment does. And, in the same way that unhealthy focus on quarterly reports and stock prices can mask structural problems within a private company, the focus on the immediate growth that comes with large public purchases of raw materials and the hiring of large construction crews can and will occlude thinking about the actual efficacy of the project being undertaken in the first place. While any public investment can create jobs and spur economic growth, the economic sustainability of the project is just as important as the near-term benefits.

It just so happens that my parents now live in Florida after having spent 30 years each working in urban planning. My father worked in the public sector in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and his work focused on standard local land use issues and transportation planning. My mother worked in the private sector, and worked at a firm who was routinely called in to provide feasibility studies assessing the viability of large-scale public expenditures around the country. Her writings on this matter stretch to the thousands of pages, if not more. Both also hold the views typical of liberals in their professions: they are in favor of density, sustainability, public transportation and the reduction of this nation's dependence on the car as a primary means of transportation. Both are also against the high-speed rail project that was proposed for Florida.

Public transportation gains its economic viability via volume. This is especially true of rail. Trains are expensive, maintenance is expensive, and land is expensive. A lot of people have to ride, and have to ride regularly, to ensure a system is breaking even, or at least coming close enough so that few politicians will see continued public investment in the line as wasteful. Public transportation is therefore best built in situations where potential riders are already making a trip, where the market for rail service already exists.

One of the more important lessons of Jane Jacobs' seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the need for neighborhoods to have uses that appeal to different people at different points of the day. The dreaded monoculture of suburbia, where uses are highly segregated, can be replicated in cities and that monoculture has the same deadening effect that it does outside of them. The neighborhood around Wall Street was Jacobs' example of a place that had way too much of one type of use (office) at the expense of other types (residential, commercial). It is a bit beyond my scope here to list all the reasons why this diversity is necessary, though a quick drive out into the suburbs of post-crash America should give you some idea. Against that world of now-abandoned strip malls, Jacobs posited tightly-interwoven mixed-use development. Neighborhoods that, through a variety of uses, are able to engage their citizens at all times create better communities, reduce crime, and spread wealth.

Transportation works in the same way. A good transportation system appeals to a lot of different people doing different things at different times. The New York subway system counts among its riders commuters in the morning, tourists and people making business trips during the day, commuters again in the early evening and then people going out for personal reasons (dinner, bad indie music in Brooklyn, heroin, whatever). Although it is an expensive system, one that might not be able to survive financed solely by the fares it collects, nobody could possible doubt the economic benefits it creates. Take away the subways system, and the money gained by not having to fund it would be more than offset by the economic catastrophe that would ensue.

Although the New York City subway system serves local needs and the proposed Florida rail system serves regional ones, the principle is the same: not only must it be used for lots of different types of trips, and at different times, but also on a regular basis. My parents and I do not believe that this will be the case with the Florida project. It may serve some people who have found a cheap flight to Tampa with Orlando as their ultimate destination, and it may serve the occasional person who has friends in one place but lives in the other, but, ultimately, there are not enough trips being made between the two places to justify the expenditure, especially at the expense of other regions in the country, or even in Florida, that may benefit from that money.

While federal spending can be a means of rebuilding the economy by creating demand that can be fulfilled with previously-idle capital, once construction of a project is complete, and the immediate economic benefits have passed, the actual nature of the project, and its long-term viability becomes paramount. If the Florida system were to be built, it seems that there would not be the ridership, and therefore revenue, to maintain the system without that maintenance cost becoming a burden on local budgets. And what a gift that would be to those that reject all public intervention a priori.

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