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Public’s dislike of big projects conflicts with need

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NEWARK, N.J. » New Jersey’s governor wants to kill a $9 billion-plus train tunnel to New York City because of runaway costs. Six thousand miles away, Hawaii’s outgoing governor has questioned the strategy to pay for a $5.5 billion rail line in Honolulu.

In many of the 48 states in between, infrastructure projects are languishing on the drawing board, awaiting the right mix of creative financing, political arm-twisting and timing to move forward. And a struggling economy and a surge of political candidates opposed to big spending could make it a long wait.

Has the nation that built the Hoover Dam, brought electricity to the rural South and engineered the interstate highway system lost its appetite for big public works projects? At a time when other countries are pouring money into steel and concrete, is the U.S. unwilling to think long term?

"My sense is things have changed," said Andrew Goetz, a University of Denver professor and an expert on transportation policy. "People now tend to see any project as a waste of money, and that’s just wrong."

"I call it the Bridge to Nowhere syndrome," he added. "High-profile projects get publicized and they become a symbol for any infrastructure project that’s out there, and even the ones that are justified get tarnished by the same charge."

The so-called Bridge to Nowhere would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to connect one Alaska town to an island of 50 residents. It figured in the 2008 presidential election when then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was criticized for initially backing the plan, which was eventually scrapped.

A report this month by the Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisers paints a picture of a country dissatisfied with the state of America’s aging infrastructure and in favor of improvements but not necessarily eager to commit the dollars to fix it.

Standing in New York’s Penn Station yesterday in front of a sign touting the proposed tunnel, commuter Bill Mischell of Plainsboro, N.J., gave voice to those conclusions.

"You could make the argument that it will make New Jersey a better place to live, but you also have to weigh it impartially against the huge cost," Mischell said. "The state’s in pretty significant financial trouble, and the money’s got to come from somewhere."

Infrastructure spending in the U.S. stands at 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product- half what it was in 1960 – compared with about 9 percent in China and 5 percent for Europe, the government report said.

"During recessions it is common for state and local governments to cut back on capital projects – such as building schools, roads and parks – in order to meet balanced budget requirements," the report concluded. "However, the need for improved and expanded infrastructure is just as great during a downturn as it is during a boom."

The American Society of Civil Engineers calculates that the U.S. would need to spend an additional

$1.1 trillion through the next five years to restore roads, bridges, dams, levees and other infrastructure to good condition. In its latest report card, the engineering society gave the nation’s public works a D grade.

"Somehow we believe if we ignore it, it will go away," said Blaine Leonard, the society’s president. "And it won’t. We have to stop hitting the snooze button on this problem."

CG/LA Infrastructure LLC, a Washington consulting firm, recently put together a list of the worthiest 100 large infrastructure projects in North America, totaling about $400 billion. Among the suggestions: a next-generation air traffic control system; high-speed rail linking Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago; and the tunnel that New Jersey’s governor has threatened to scuttle.

Construction on the rail tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York City began in 2009 under then-Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat. Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Chris Christie announced he was pulling the plug because the cost had escalated from $5 billion in 2005 to more than $9 billion by the federal government’s estimate, and as much as $14 billion by Christie’s reckoning.

Christie later agreed to reconsider. The two-week review period expires today.

In Hawaii, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle announced recently that she would not sign off on a federally subsidized rail line until an updated economic study is conducted. That might not be completed before she leaves office in less than two months. That means the project’s fate could be in her successor’s hands. However, both Democratic candidate and former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Republican candidate Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona have expressed support for the project.

In Seattle, new Mayor Mike McGinn is threatening to hold up construction of a massive highway tunnel to replace the waterfront’s dilapidated, earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct because he fears city taxpayers will be on the hook if costs spiral beyond the $4.2 billion price tag.

It often takes a catastrophe to give infrastructure improvements more urgency. The Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007 that killed 13 people prompted reviews of aging bridges around the country.

"Unfortunately, our attention span is short," Leonard said. "You would think the Minneapolis bridge collapse would have sent repercussions throughout the system that would have resulted in a transportation funding bill, but it didn’t. Even bridge-funding bills didn’t get through Congress."

Consultant Norman Anderson of CG/LA Infrastructure said the federal government’s recent emphasis on smaller, "shovel-ready" projects to stimulate the economy is misguided and shows a lack of vision.

"You don’t do ‘shovel-ready.’ That is idiotic and extremely uninformed," he said in an e-mail. "You do projects now because they produce value for an economy 20 to 30 years into the future, as well as producing immediate jobs."

 

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