Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The cost of infrastructure: past, present and future.

The economy has been really tough on people, and it's becoming really tough on our country's infrastructure. The New York Times has an article on the increases in fares for mass transit to cover deficits from other funding sources and the simultaneous reduction in service level. (Sounds ominously like an ideal budget deal). But like the economy, mass transit systems suffer from feedback loops. It's too costly to take mass transit fewer people ride and the budget deficits expand. Too infrequent, people find it inconvenient and the look for alternatives. But this time it's different, as the economy forces individuals to ride mass transit even more.

The economic downturn is playing havoc with the nation’s public transit systems even as ridership remains near record levels: since 2010, 71 percent of the nation’s large systems have cut service, and half have raised fares, according to a survey released Wednesday by the American Public Transportation Association, a transit advocacy group.

And in many cases, those fare increases and service cuts — made necessary by flat or reduced state and local aid — are being implemented on top of similar moves earlier in the downturn.

“It’s compounding,” Art Guzzetti, the vice president for policy at the transportation association, said of the repeated years of service cuts and fare increases. “I’ve been in the business 32 years. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs along the way. That’s been the nature of the business. But notwithstanding that, this is the worst it’s been in my time.”


It explained its bind in a note to riders, which said that the downturn has caused the regional transportation sales tax it relies on to “plummet,” and that it was now on track to take in $350 million less than expected through 2013. The rising cost of diesel fuel, meanwhile, will cost the agency $18.3 million more than expected this year. And the agency warned that it would be dangerous to continue taking money out of its capital budget, which is needed to pay for a much-needed backlog of repairs and improvements, in order to keep its trains running.

“Further depleting the capital budget to pay for operations will only make the problem worse and eventually result in impacts on our service and service delays,” it warned.

How do you avoid going deeper in the hole. It's a big dilemma. It's not just limited to transportation infrastructure, as the Verizon Land line strike is straining customer patience as the New York Times reports. The challenge of infrastructure is it costs a lot to build, and it costs a lot to rebuild. And at some time you have to rebuild. We've become so broke, that the roof is leaking, the paint peeling and it's not clear what can be done. We haven't always thought of the moment, but beyond the moment as this nice anecdote from Stewart Brand demonstrates:

The anthropologist/philosopher Gregory Bateson used to tell this story:

Founded in 1379, New College, Oxford is one of the oldest Oxford colleges. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with huge oak beams across the top, as large as two feet square, and forty-five feet long each.

A century ago, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, which met the news with some dismay, beams this large were now very hard, if not impossible to come by. "Where would they get beams of that caliber?" they worried.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

A nice story, one which raises an immediate question, “What about the next time? Has a new grove of oaks been planted and protected?”


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