Old Infrastructure Is Hard Infrastructure

A blog about business and economics.
July 12 2012 9:35 PM

Old Infrastructure Is Hard Infrastructure

The Throgs Neck Bridge
The Throgs Neck Bridge

Photograph by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images.

Not to deny the existence of public policy failures regarding America's transportation infrastructure, but today a family matter led to a substantial amount of driving around the fringes of New York City, and practical experience puts some of these issues into a somewhat different light. For starters, the condition of the roadway on the George Washington Bridge is less-than-ideal and on the Cross Bronx Expressway it's downright scandalous. This is the de facto capital of the mightiest empire the world has ever known and we can't keep our roads paved properly?

But then my wife and I got to the Throgs Neck Bridge where, also annoyingly, a full lane was shut down slowing traffic to a crawl.

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So the question is, what's a mature superpower to do? It's all well and good for China to go from poor to middle income and build a bunch of new infrastructure. But America's infrastructure isn't old out of perversity, it's old because we genuinely built this stuff a long time ago. And having built it, people shaped their lives—dwellings, commerce, commuting patterns—around the presumption that it would be there. Turning it off temporarily to fix it doesn't just carry a financial cost, it's extremely annoying to the people who are hoping to use the infrastructure. Yet at the same time, deferring needed upkeep is very much a kind of false economy.

You can handle this dilemma better or worse and everything I know tells me we're not handling it optimally. But a lot of comparisons between the United States and newly industrializing Asia, or even between the Northeast and the Sunbelt, seem to me to not adequately recognize that aging physical infrastructure poses an inherent difficulty.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.