Let's Talk Infrastructure! Reports From Brooklyn, Berkeley, and Kentucky

I won't string this out forever, but the inbox is bulging with thoughts about whether U.S. infrastructure is actually declining and if so, why; whether people in DC should stop whining about the lights, phones, and other mod cons going out for days on end; whether it makes sense to move power lines underground; whether this is the new face of extreme weather; and so on. (Previously here, here, here, here etc)

I'll try to wrap this up with today's installment and maybe one more in a day or two.

What New York learned From reader TH in New York, who has himself written a lot about infrastructure, industrial investments, and so on:

Your post put me in mind of the Great Blizzard of 1888, a nor'easter for all time that buried the Mid-Atlantic and New England under 4 feet of snow. Wikipedia here, several contemporary accounts here (this site is worth poking around further if you love New York history and/or public rail), and seemingly authoritative but poorly sourced roundup here.

But in a nutshell, in New York the storm's severe impact on telegraph and power lines provided the political impetus to finally move them from above-ground poles to below-ground conduits. This image illustrates the change. (The "before" on the left is a drawing, but it accurately portrays reality.)

1890sWires.jpeg

New York does occasionally get major, costly blackouts, but they're usually the result of grid or transformer failures, not wind damage. When big storms hit -- and we've been having a worrisome number of them lately too -- the major concerns are flooding and property damage, not widespread loss of power.

But the point is, above-ground power and comm infrastructure is a huge, dispersed risk that we've been aware of almost since the first neighborhood got wired nearly 150 years ago. Burying it would provide a short-term economic boon and a long-term defense against economic disruptions. Odds of this happening in the vulnerable old Northeast Corridor cities that would benefit from both? I'm guessing zero. But at least folks'll have shiny new stadiums to shelter in during the next disaster. Argh.

Maybe we're just too big From a reader in Berkeley CA:

Not all of our "infrastructure gap" with other countries need be attributed to our political and economic incompetence.  Surely it's at least partly due to the simple need to provision a far larger area of land in relation to the size of our economy.

We are used to comparing GDP levels for different countries, and often compare GDP per capita.  But consider a different metric:  GDP per unit of land area needing infrastructure.

Take South Korea, for example -- the poster country for fast internet service.  Its GDP is 7.4% of our own.  But South Korea is only 1.0% as large in area as the U.S. -- about the size of Indiana.   That makes for a ratio of GDP in billions of dollars to land in millions of sq. miles of  30.2.
 
For the US, that ratio is 4.1 counting Alaska or about 4.9 excluding it.

Is there any doubt that we'd have internet service as good as Korea's if we enjoyed 7 times our current GDP to support every area needing fast access? Or if with our current GDP we only had to build out seven Indianas?

For infrastructure-rich Switzerland (4% of our GDP, 1.4% of our land area) the ratio is 11.8.  Can't we think that with even 2-3 times more GDP per square mile we'd surely enjoy some actual high-speed rail service and a lot fewer crumbling bridges?

That  metric is too simple to be adequate on its own, of course. And we continue to enjoy many advantages from our abundant resource-rich land. But many infrastructure requirements do scale roughly in proportion to area (square), so we shouldn't place all the blame on a government that has trouble planning even in a single dimension at a time.

Similarly about population density:

I'm wondering why you don't mention population density when discussing the sorry state of America's infrastructure. I agree 100% that much of Europe, especially Germany, has roads, etc., that are far superior to ours. But when my German friends complain about the state of our 'autobahns', I remind them that Germany has 80 million taxpayers in an area the size of Montana, while we have roughly four times that many (citizens, of course, not taxpayers) spread out all over this continent.

The point being, concentration of population makes it much easier to have really first-class infrastructure. And so states like poor old West Virginia, where I'm from, don't stand a chance - almost no people paying taxes, and some of the roughest terrain in America to build roads in.

Right, but ... some of the biggest problems now seem to be in the most population-dense areas of the country, especially along the eastern seaboard. Which brings me to...

The old North-South divide:

One factor you haven't yet considered is the infrastructure gap between Northern (read: Democrat) and Southern (read: Republican) states. I recently moved from Maryland to North Carolina, and the quality of the roads here is significantly better.

There could be many reasons for this--population growth, greater expenditures on roads, more recently build roads--but I suspect that the average voter living in Georgia, Texas, or Florida, doesn't see the crumbling infrastructure one encounters in Maryland, Minnesota, or Pennsylvania, and therefore doesn't see it as a pressing issue.

And, the view from the Midwest:

Just want to chime in reply to your DC-is-a-cesspool writer (as I'm sure others are) and say No, once a year, multi-day blackouts are not the norm for people outside of DC, or at least not for me.
 
I'm in Chicago (an aging city, plenty of old, ill-maintained infrastructure) and our power, phone, cable, etc are not buried, they are on wooden poles.

We've had our share of very strong storms in the last 4 years - but the power outages I've experienced last at most a few hours or parts of a day.  Others in the leafy suburbs probably have other stories, but I don't think it's the norm for them, either.

Chicago did have one large outage about 10 years ago covering a big portion of the north side for I believe 2-3 days - but that was based on a large transformer failure and since then there's been a noticable increase in transmission stations they've built. My sense is that experience caused the city to turn the screws on utility, to good effect.

Anyhow - i'd much rather hear the gentlemen you quoted tell us why burying power lines is generally a bad idea - instead of his belief that we all need to be ready for a week without power. He appears to be saying DC should be less livable and with even lousier infrastructure so they can understand how the rest of America lives.

And from Kentucky:

In your post you concluded "I don't agree about multi-day power outages being a norm in the rest of the country." 

There was a time I would have agreed with you.  I grew up in Ohio, lived a decade in Albuquerque, and spend five years in western Michigan.  For all of this time power outages were rare, and when they did occur, short. 

In 1996 our family moved to Louisville, KY.  We immediately noticed that outages were more frequent and every few years we had a short (2-3 day) multi-day outage.  Then, in 2008 and 2009 the state suffered its worst outages ever, lasting a week or more in some locations.  The first was caused by remnants of hurricane Ike and the second by a huge winter storm featuring freezing rain.  I cannot tell whether or not the change is locational or a sign of the times, but reliability is much worst that we have previously experienced.  We have friends who have purchased whole house natural gas generators and we have been considering doing so. 

Bottom-line--I think power outages are the norm for weather events such as DC recently experienced, no matter where they occur in the country.

And to round it off for the day, let's hear from Brooklyn:

How coddled you are, in New York or DC, depends on what class you belong to, and on where you live.

I've been through 2 blackouts in my 20 years in New York.  I spent the big Blackout of 2003 in a tiny railroad flat in the East Village.  My neighborhood did not see power fully restored until 3 days later.  I had to use a flashlight to see in my pitch dark building, and the fragrance of rotting food was everywhere.

I went through a much worse localized blackout in Queens in 2006.  I did not see any power in Sunnyside/ Woodside for 5 days in the middle of a very hot July. And I consider myself fortunate.  Residents in high rise housing projects in Woodside had no running water for days when their buildings' electric pumps failed in the blackout -- no light and no water.  My neighbors could not help but contrast the speed with which power was restored in Manhattan in 2003 with the more leisurely pace of repairs in Queens in 2006. Indeed, our leaders did not even seem to notice that there was a problem in Queens for 2 days.  Not only did we not see any vehicles from ConEdison in the area, we didn't even see police in the neighborhood.  Only the local fire houses ran patrols day and night in those first days.

I now live in Brooklyn, though I'm no less vulnerable to the same system failures.

If you can afford the price, then you can live in a cocoon of luxury here in New York, thoroughly insulated from the woes of those left to the tender mercies of ever more crowded subways, buses, and highways struggling to get to their ever more demanding and poorly paid jobs to sustain growing debt burdens.

I hope that the political classes in Washington learn something from this experience, that perhaps the national power grid really does need some maintenance and updating after decades of neglect, along with water and sewer systems, roads and bridges, railroads, etc.  However, I'm not optimistic.  I think fondly on all the money wasted on a pointless imperial adventure like the Iraq Invasion that could have been so much better and more productively spent here.

Thanks to all. One more installment, and some Closing Thoughts, in store. Meanwhile, home front report: eight days after the storm, electric power, phone lines, and internet all up and running in our part of DC.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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