Thursday, April 12, 2007

Civic Engineering

Felix Rohaytn, an experienced and well-connected financier (he helped NYC restructure its debt in the 1970s, saving the city from bankruptcy) and former U.S. ambassador to France, has a great idea:

''Since the beginning of the republic,'' he said, ''transportation, infrastructure and education have played a central role in advancing the American economy, whether it was the canals in upstate New York, or the railroads that linked our heartland to our industrial centers; whether it was the opening of education to average Americans by land grant colleges and the G.I. bill, making education basic to American life; or whether it was the interstate highway system that ultimately connected all regions of the nation.

''This did not happen by chance, but was the result of major investments financed by the federal and state governments over the last century and a half. We need to make similar investments now.''
Bob Herbert kicks off his NYT op-ed on the subject with this alternately stirring and somber note:

Fifty-nine years ago this week -- on April 3, 1948 -- President Truman signed the legislation establishing the Marshall Plan, which contributed so much to the rebuilding of postwar Europe. Now, more than half a century later, the U.S. can't even rebuild New Orleans.

It doesn't seem able to build much of anything, really. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the U.S. infrastructure is in sad shape, and it would take more than a trillion and a half dollars over a five-year period to bring it back to a reasonably adequate condition.

Decaying infrastructure is one of the many reasons cities like Philadelphia face a comparable financial crisis to 1970s New York. In the area of transportation alone, Philadelphia's streets, subways, trolley lines, docks, sidewalks, airports, and highways are all falling apart. The Delaware river needs to be dredged to let larger ships come to the Philadelphia port. All of these things costs hundreds of millions of dollars -- beyond the resources of even a government as large as Philadelphia's, which still has problems policing its streets and supporting basic services.

But other cities and states are getting the money. It's just cities and states who matter, not sadder places like Philadelphia or New Orleans. NYC is getting hundreds of millions of dollars from the FTA to finish the Second Avenue Subway. Philadelphia is getting some money to rebuild I-95 -- not coincidentally, the highway that currently runs between New York and Washington. Not only would a plan like this give cities a budgetary boost, it would actually add to their real assets, which are rapidly diminishing. If there's anything we should be spending the federal government's resources on, it's this.

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