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.)
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...