Monday, November 01, 2010

Thinking Small: America Succumbs To The Bridge To Nowhere Syndrome

America became the country it once was in large part because of its capacity to think big: The Hoover Dam, bringing electricity to the rural South and engineering the interstate highway system all come to mind. But now, as an inevitable result of a widespread governmental budgetary malaise and the natterings of the right-wing pitchfork brigade, our leaders are thinking small if they are thinking at all. And the long-term consequences will be dire.

One academic calls this the Bridge to Nowhere Syndrome, an inapt title that nevertheless captures the mood of these troubled times.

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

It would have been hard to justify the Bridge to Nowhere under any circumstances, but other high-profile projects have nevertheless been tarnished, and none is as big nor as important as the proposed Hudson River rail tunnel, which small-thinking New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed not once but twice because of cost-overrun concerns, the second time on the very day that China rolled out its fastest bullet train yet.

As anyone who has driven or taken a train into Manhattan from North Jersey knows, the region's transportation infrastructure is stretched to the breaking point. Some 270,000 people make the commute each weekday and the region desperately needs a third rail tunnel under the Hudson River because Amtrak and regional trains are full during rush hours and the two existing tunnels, one of them a century old, are at capacity.

A new tunnel would provide room for 70,000 more commuters, but would come at a hefty price: The original cost of the project was $8.7 billion with the feds, New York and New Jersey each contributing about $3 billion, but New Jersey would be saddled with cost overruns. Fairly so in my view because a third tunnel would mostly benefit Garden State commuters.

Christie, who campaigned on a spendthrift platform and has cut and slashed programs and positions in a never-far-from-bankrupt state that is the most expensive to live in, has been getting a lot of bad press for his decision, and perhaps undeservedly so. Cost overruns could soar as high as $4 billion.

All that noted, the project would create 6,000 or so construction jobs, as well as provide a much needed alternative if one or both of the existing tunnels would have to be shut down. It also would position the region for future growth. By one estimate, the tunnel would lead to the creation of 40,000 permanent jobs.

A number of solutions are being bandied about to get the tunnel project back on . . . er, track.

For openers, New York should pay more of its fair share and New Jersey should increase its gasoline tax, which at a ridiculously low 14.5 percent per gallon is the third lowest in the U.S. and hasn't be increased since 1988. About 30 percent of the gas pumped is for out-of-state residents, the DF&C and I included, who will make the short hop across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to fill up in New Jersey.

Infrastructure spending in the U.S. stands at a measly 2 percent of the country's gross domestic product -- half what it was in 1960 -- compared with approximately 9 percent in China and 5 percent for Europe.

The current malaise abroad in the land aside, if ever there was a time and place to think big, this is it.

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