The Agenda

Felix Salmon on Shiny New Airports

I am, as regular readers know, an infrastructure enthusiast. But I think it’s careful to separate sustainable infrastructure investments — the kind that pay for themselves, and generate lots of positive externalities — as opposed to boondoggles that appeal to the vanity of politicians and other powerful people. Felix Salmon has done us a great service by clarifying the distinction.

The post starts as a critique of Larry Summers that at first struck me as needlessly class-warriorish. In implicit homage to John Kenneth Galbraith’s memorable line about “public squalor” and “private affluence” in American life (if only, said Reihan), Summers rued the gap between America’s most beautiful private resorts and the shabby quality of our major airports. Felix replies:

 

I’m sure that Summers has encountered lots of shiny new airports in his travels around the world, in comparison to which US airports look decidedly crumbly. But a lot of that is simply a function of age: it’s easy for Chinese airports to be super-modern and efficient, just because they’re brand new. (And have the advantage of very low construction costs.) It’s much harder for Delta’s Marine Air Terminal to be as Summers-friendly: it was built in 1939, long before anybody ever so much as imagined the TSA. (Indeed, it was before the planes which landed there even landed on solid ground: it was designed to service sea planes.) But because the terminal is one end of the Delta Shuttle from National Airport, I’m sure Summers knows it well.

More to the point, a lot of the money spent on shiny new airports around the world is simply wasted, from an economic perspective. National governments, especially in developing countries, like to show off when it comes to the airports where luminaries like Summers arrive. But all that expense isn’t really necessary for the smooth functioning of the airport.

Summers has been a vocal proponent of infrastructure investment, but if his idea of good infrastructure investment is cosmetic airport revamps which give him plusher lounges and colder drinks, then that’s just depressing. The really crucial infrastructure investment is in things like the national electricity grid, or NYC’s Water Tunnel 3 — expensive, yes, but decidedly unglamorous. [Emphasis added.]

This is spot on. Where Felix and I might part company is on high-speed rail. I tend to see it as unnecessary, and I’d much prefer that we invest in bus rapid transit, congestion pricing efforts, performance parking systems, freight rail, traffic calming, and other methods of getting more throughput out of existing infrastructure. 

I say this despite the fact that I would love to ride on the $117.5 billion bullet train Amtrak has proposed for the Northeast Corridor, featuring a new 426-mile rail alignment that would move commuters from Washington, D.C. to New York in 96 minutes — the exact running time of the popular 2009 film The Hangover. A more modest proposal Amtrak released last year, involving a mere $10.2 billion in track upgrades, would reduce the trip time from D.C. to New York to 135 minutes, the running time of Michael Bay’s first Transformers film.

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