An Infrastructure Divide

Michael Cain

Michael is a systems analyst, with a taste for obscure applied math. He's interested in energy supplies, the urban/rural divide, regional political differences in the US, and map-like things. Bicycling, and fencing (with swords, that is) act as stress relief.

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39 Responses

  1. Francis says:

    On the one hand, ASCE never met a problem that didn’t require a multi-billion dollar project involving cubic kilometers of concrete.

    On the other, old cities are tough to retrofit to modern environmental standards, because wastewater treatment plants require room. (Last I checked, the preferred design standard is to have first-flush stormwater diverted into the wastewater plant, to capture dog poop and other contaminants that get mobilized when it rains. The rest is safe to dump untreated into the nearest water body.) So how safe is safe? How often should raw sewage enter the drinking water? How many people are we willing to kill (on a statistical basis) due to contaminated drinking water? Even if we’re not killing people, contaminated water makes people sick, ruins fisheries, and is generally just gross.

    The State of California, by the way, should thank the gods of community activism that it never built the Peripheral Canal, which would have moved Northern California river water around the Bay/Delta through a very complicated series of surface canals. Climate change is real and sea levels are rising. That infrastructure would not have lasted.Report

    • Kim in reply to Francis says:

      New cities are also tough to retrofit, but California (and china) simply make more laws.
      And Toto makes money hand over fist.

      Western cities need to retrofit for drought.Report

  2. notme says:

    Is this an information piece or are you taking a position on a course of action?Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    The Country is pretty big so I think a lot of things can be simultaneously true. A lot of infrastructure can be falling into disrepair and other places can be working really hard to update infrastructure.

    I imagine it involves a complex number of factors including wealth of community, general politics of a community, priorities, and also interstate stuff. There were a lot of stories from the end of last year about how Boston’s T and the NYC subways needed major amounts of upgrades and improvements. NYC’s subway money is always a fight of resentment between Upstate and NYC-Metro. For whatever reason, no governor has ever decided that all the voters in NYC-Metro might be better to please than the handful of voters in upstate NY. Cuomo called the MTA’s estimates bloated but he will spend lots of money on a small subway to LaGaurdia or JFK connection. The T is supposed to be even more in need of lots of upgrades.Report

    • The Country is pretty big so I think a lot of things can be simultaneously true. A lot of infrastructure can be falling into disrepair and other places can be working really hard to update infrastructure.

      In the instant case, we have a growing suburb. This suggests that there is money, that the existing infrastructure is clearly inadequate for the growing population, and that there is room to build new infrastructure without having to resort to costly and protracted eminent domain proceedings. In other words, just the sort of area where you would expect such projects unless the local voters are completely batshit crazy. And even then, a good storm with human feces in the streets can do wonders when voting on a bond initiative.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Right especially in the Denver-Boulder metro area which might skew left and for something that will make commuting easier. Sonoma and Marin are building a train between them.

        Though I have a hard time of thinking of a place with 100K residents as a suburb. You are a small city at that point.Report

        • A huge difference between western urban areas [1] compared to the areas farther east is the “structure” of the suburbs. To the east, the suburbs generally consist of a bazillion small towns. To the west, far fewer but much larger towns/cities. Abbott makes a big deal about this in The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the American West, asserting that it results in a very different political dynamic. Most of the western suburbs got “big” in the last 50-60 years — when the “campus” structure for development was dominant, rather than “downtown”. Aurora is Denver’s largest suburb at 350K. But just recently the mayor there said that when the next light rail line opens next year, it will finally be possible for the city to start creating an actual “downtown” core.

          [1] Broadly, cities from Denver west.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Geographic resentment and mal-appropriation of seats in the state legislature or Congress does not make proper infrastructure spending easy.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

        It’s not a structural problem, it’s the shifting poltical tides. First there was the American System and then it’s poltical opponents came into power and their wasn’t, then the civil war restored all the legacy non-slavery Whig ideas back to the forefront then cars came and the poltical system was rigged towards roads for 70 years though a whole lot of different dominant politics and economic conditions. Now, the political pendulum has swung towards skepticism of government spending, and it doesn’t help that management of big infrastructure projects seems to have lost its mojo, with everything too expensive, too delayed, and sometimes too substandard. Just this week we’re hearing of the Bay Bridge that was long delayed and over budget, and now has a major design flaw wrt water intrusion on the cable stays.Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Kolohe says:

          How do people think they will get goods and also to and from work if they don’t do proper maintenance on bridges and roads?Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Kolohe says:

          In other words, the original US Build-out was exciting and focused but the Remodel lacks enthusiasm?Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Stillwater says:

            Isn’t upkeep always a drag?Report

            • Stillwater in reply to Saul Degraw says:

              I think part of what Kolohe is getting at is that back in the day folks were (justifiably!) sold on the idea that gummental spending now will reap big economic rewards down the road (just across the newly constructed bridge…), and that idea held until around the early 70s-ish or so. So that part of the equation has changed.

              But you’re right: there’s nothing sexy about maintenance.Report

              • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

                Well i think people want the services they want, they just don’t want to pay for them all that much for various reasons. Some of those reasons are “those people” or it’s always to expensive or i already paid my money so give me mine.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to Stillwater says:

                No, I’m saying back in the day there were the same political tensions between people who wanted to build lots of good stuff, people who only wanted parochial pork, and people ideologically opposed to any such government spending. Who is dominant among those three factions has ebbed and flowed over time, and due to quirks of history, the same anti-Clay Jacksonian Democrats are now Tea Party Republicans.

                But it has nothing to do with Senate overrepresentation of rural interests and only the slightest to do with regional resentment.Report

              • Chris in reply to Stillwater says:

                Just today in the city council meeting here, someone on the council objected to building solar infrastructure because many in her district would be dead by the time the projected savings would be realized.Report

  4. Troublesome Frog says:

    As a homeowner, it always amazes me how much unglamorous stuff needs to be tweaked and maintained that people using the home day to day never notice unless it fails. Plumbing, wiring, insulation, water sealing, and HVAC all just sit quietly under the covers until something goes wrong, and then it’s an emergency. I’m the type of person who will spend part of a weekend under a sink bringing the plumbing arrangement up to code, but most people don’t get it when I tell them what I did. I started with a working sink and spent a day and some cash, and now I have a working sink with some rearranged pipes. I didn’t put in a sexy new fixture. No granite counter top was installed. I drool over things like a modern electrical panel or new rain gutters.

    My wife generally gives me a free hand to do these sorts of things, so I’m happy. I can’t imagine having to go before a committee of people who have the “It’s working, so why do you need to work on it?” attitude to do preventative maintenance and upgrades to bring infrastructure up to modern standards. I understand it, though. There’s a definite lack of sizzle in telling your constituents that you spent their money upgrading some hidden component in the (apparently working) sewer system when you could have built a bridge with that cash and had a sweet ribbon cutting ceremony.Report

  5. dragonfrog says:

    I don’t know about the US, but in Canada, it would be accurate that you effectively live in a different country – specifically, you don’t live on a native reservation. Many reserves have spent years living with things that would topple governments if white people experienced them for months.Report

    • Kim in reply to dragonfrog says:

      Oh, it’s worse down here. Down here, some Indian reservations have functioned as rape preserves — places where the white folks go to rape women with very little in the way of consequences.Report