Infrastructure as destiny (By Brett Frischmann and Robin Chase)

A draft op ed, below the fold

As Barack Obama and his advisers ponder how to transform campaign promises about road and bridge improvements into reality, they should consider this historical lesson: Large-scale infrastructure investments have — and will — chart our national destiny.

Infrastructure investments are expensive, the construction and maintenance is disruptive, and, yes, planning and building infrastructure puts many people to work. Yet the real power of infrastructure investment is the dramatic effect it has on our daily lives. Infrastructure literally steers the direction of social systems: economic, cultural, and political. Often taken for granted, infrastructure fundamentally affects the behavior of individuals, businesses, households, and other organizations by providing and shaping available opportunities to participate in these systems and to interact with each other. Increasing the scope and range of these opportunities generates large, long-term social gains. These gains — “spillovers” in economics jargon — are a key ingredient to economic growth and are what make investment in infrastructure attractive when compared to alternative means for stimulating the economy. Consider two examples: the Interstate Highway System and the Internet.

Fifty-two years have passed since the Interstate Highway System’s first shovel-full of dirt. Begun in 1956, the federal government created wide, fast, and relatively safe highways connecting communities across the nation. This critical infrastructure investment contributed dramatically to the growth of the economy and our society. It generated many new opportunities and reduced the costs of participating in economic, cultural, and political systems. It did so by lowering the cost of transporting goods and people, and growing and interconnecting markets and communities close and distant. People took advantage of these opportunities and we’ve all benefited tremendously.

Still, along with such gains came costs, above and beyond the money invested. The investment focused almost exclusively on optimizing roads for car use, and that had unintended consequences. In order to participate, Americans must spend 18 percent of their average household income on cars, about $8,000 a year. Twenty percent of US CO2 emissions are from our personal cars. And forty years ago, half of all school children walked or biked to school; today only fifteen percent do so. We have also created serious access inequities for the young, the old, the poor, and the disabled, for whom driving is unsuitable. With 50 years of experience behind us, we can quite clearly see how a beautifully honed, single-purpose, car-centric transportation infrastructure delivered the reality much of America lives in today: Own a car, or do without income, food, or access to your friends.

The only infrastructure improvement that rivals, even exceeds, the highway system for connecting people and communities while opening commerce opportunities is the Internet. During the last two decades, the Internet has grown to become an integral part of our national infrastructure. In addition to the amazing growth in electronic commerce and innovations unimaginable only two decades ago, the Internet has radically increased entrepreneurship, political discourse, the production and consumption of media, social network formation, and community building. And like the highway system, the Internet also has its share of unintended consequences and costs (consider malware viruses, identity theft and privacy concerns, for example). Decisions made in the coming years regarding government investment in broadband and wireless infrastructure, and regulation of privately owned Internet infrastructure will have a direct, significant impact on the future of the Internet, and the many economic, political and social systems that increasingly depend on it.

So the question is, which social values and economic futures do we want to enable? The newly elected Obama administration tells us that massive infrastructure investment will focus on creating jobs, stimulating the economy, supporting education and health care, and addressing climate change and energy independence. These are admirable, appropriate, but generic goals. Such goals will not provide the answers to the difficult questions of resource allocation, project prioritization, and execution strategy that lie ahead.

The Obama administration must develop a comprehensive infrastructure policy that considers how different infrastructures enable participation in economic, cultural, and political systems. Investments should leverage and maximize the scope and connectedness of existing networks and systems. They should lower the costs of getting a job and getting to work, engaging in research and innovation, and doing business. The investments should best enable people to generate public goods that benefit society (including addressing climate change and energy independence) and that enable (smart) choices wherever possible.

An Obama infrastructure policy should also encourage multi- and cross-infrastructure planning and coordination. This would help eliminate costly redundancies, facilitate intermodal coordination and strategic planning, and leverage opportunities to simultaneously build multiple infrastructures. For example, it could require that public investments in wireless communications infrastructure — such as traffic monitoring systems, signal switches, congestion pricing, and smart meters — cooperate with each other as well as open up excess capacity to the public.

Articulating and implementing infrastructure policy is essential to the future of our country. The beauty of infrastructure investment is that it has the opportunity to become so much more than simple job creation and a short-term fix to the economy. The Obama administration should fight shortsighted political and economic pressures, and do what is required to maximize the enormous collateral effect of generating substantial long-term
benefits for society.