Fixing Infrastructure

I only have first-hand experience with two of the pieces of U. S. infrastructure listed by Popular Mechanics in its review of U. S. infrastructure in urgent need of attention, the Chicago Circle and O’Hare Airport. I note, proudly, that two of the listed items are in Chicago, the only city so blessed.

I agree completely with their assessments of the Chicago Circle:

After years of being ranked two of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the country by groups like the American Highway Users Alliance, both the U.S. 101 at the I-405 Interchange in Los Angeles and the I-610 and I-10 Interchange in Houston are being revamped. But the third-worst spot for highway congestion, Chicago’s Circle Interchange, is going nowhere. One parkway and three expressways meet here, and close to 300,000 vehicles a day are forced to reduce speed while navigating a network of tightly curved ramps. The result: an estimated 25 million hours in delays per year. A $975 million expansion project might relieve traffic on one of the expressways, but no plans have been announced to address the congested interchange itself.

and O’Hare:

It had the country’s worst record of on-time departures in the first half of 2007 (fewer than 65 percent), according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is also among the worst in terms of near-misses on the runway–the airport saw 68 runway incursions between 2001 and 2006, with three close calls in March 2006. New radar designed to help prevent such incursions has been criticized by air traffic controllers, who claim that the systems are blinded by snow and rain. Reconfiguring the multiple crossing runways could help.

IMO both problems have languished as a consequence of the manifest incompetence of city, county, and state governments. O’Hare expansion, a prerequisite for the fixes PM notes, has proceeded at a glacial pace at least partially due to opposition of neighboring towns who, ironically, owe their growth to O’Hare, the very institution they oppose.

The problems with the Chicago Circle are the long in coming consequences of the late Mayor Daley’s insistence that every major highway in the area pass through Chicago’s downtown. While that policy has kept the Chicago Loop lively, especially by comparison with other Midwestern downtowns, it also has a downside, in this case the incredible congestion.

Can anyone provide a convincing argument, other than the local citizens not being interested enough in the infrastructure on which they depend to pay for them, that any of PM’s ten critical problems, let alone all ten, should be paid for by the federal government?

8 comments… add one
  • Does it count if I make an argument for O’Hare being bombed by the federal government? Though, not the AA Admiral’s Club — that’s where I hang when stuck there.

    How about this. Since only the federal government can address overarching issues relating to congestion in the system as a whole, and since their failure to deal with the system as a whole exacerbates, and is exacerbated by, ORD, the feds have an interest in same.

  • GeorgeSorwell Link

    The nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions generate 75 percent of its economic output. They also handle 75 percent of its foreign sea cargo, 79 percent of its air cargo, and 92 percent of its air-passenger traffic. Yet of the 6,373 earmarked projects that dominate the current federal transportation law, only half are targeted at these metro areas.

    Read the whole thing. It’s not very long.

  • michael:

    I think the best arguments are for O’Hare (along the lines you suggest) and Okeechobee (because of the CoE screw-ups).


    That’s a compelling argument only if the 100 largest metropolitan regions don’t have 75% or more of the population and 75% or more of the wealth. If, as I suspect, they have both then it’s a compelling argument that they should take care of their own problems.

    The key issue isn’t whether we should fix this stuff. Of course we should. The issue for me is whether the citizens of Chicago should pay for the reclaiming of the water supply in Atlanta or the people in New York should rebuild a bridge in Seattle.

    The tax dollars aren’t infinite and in both Chicago’s and New York’s case more is coming out than is going in and will for the foreseeable future.

  • While I see your point about local funds fixing local problems, I can’t help wonder about places like… say… the canal locks in New Orleans. Neither the city nor the state have the funds for repairs on that scale. It’s an impoverished region for the most part — yet much of the rest of the country relies on the infrastructure there on the river.

    Would that not seem to be an example of when federal dollars apply?

  • GeorgeSorwell Link


    The point of the article I linked is that much of the economic health of the US is dependent on infrastructure. To take up Polimom’s example, it isn’t just New Orleans, or just Louisiana, that are economically dependent on the canal locks at the opening of the Mississippi River.

    Do farmers in Arkansas benefit from the canal lock? How about farmers in Nebraska?

    Do farmers in Iowa benefit from infrastructure in Chicago, hog butcher for the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat? It seems pretty obvious to me that they do. And I imagine Chicago has two items on this list because its greater metropolitan area encompasses territory in three states. How many jurisdictions are involved there?

    The argument that “internal improvements” benefit the entire country goes back at least to Henry Clay.

  • And during Henry Clay’s time 99.9% of the cost of infrastructure maintenance and improvements were borne by the state and local governments.

    I’m not opposed to some involvement by the federal government in infrastructure improvement, particularly on the basis of need (New Orleans) and vital national interest (New Orleans, O’Hare).

    But I don’t think the federal government should be taking the lead on these projects nor do I believe that the federal government should be paying the bulk or even half of the cost, except in very extreme cases. I don’t think that the federal government should pay for improving the Chicago Circle, Atlanta’s water supply, or a Seattle commuter freeway. The case that those are of such great benefit to the nation that the nation as a whole should pay for them is very strained.

    There are three reasons I believe this. First, federalizing all infrastructure improvements infantilizes the states. Second, federalizing all infrastructure improvements diverts money from the states into Washington, DC and the adjoining areas of Maryland and Virginia to the detriment of the other states. Third, from a practical standpoint federalizing infrastructure improvements doesn’t mean Iowa and Nebraska farmers paying for Chicago infrastructure. It means Chicagoans paying for West Virginian infrastructure and the political realities of the Congress suggest it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

    Update (first time I’ve ever put a formal update into a comment)

    Federalizing infrastructure improvements besides being inefficient is also economically distorting. That results in resources being utilized inefficiently.

  • GeorgeSorwell Link


    I’m not arguing that the federal government should take the lead on all infrastructure. I don’t live anywhere near Idaho, but I don’t see why Idahoans can’t fix their own low-traffic bridge.

    But do you think the political realities of Indiana and Wisconsin will allow for their assistance in fixing downtown Chicago traffic tie-ups?

    And you’re begging me to ask how you think the farmers of Nebraska ought to pay their share for improvements to infrastructure located in some big city in Illinois. Toll roads? Congestion pricing? How do you think something like that would fly in the political realities of Nebraska?

    I appreciate the fact that you’ve taken my questions seriously enough to make your first formal update to a comment.

    By the way, didn’t Henry Clay favor federal tariffs on imports to pay for at least some of the internal improvements?

  • It doesn’t sound like we’re that far apart. My point about Nebraska and Iowa (not to mention Montana and Idaho) is that Chicagoans and New Yorkers pay out more in federal taxes than they receive in terms of federal appropriations spent in their districts. With Nebraskans, Iowans, Montanans, and Idahoans, it’s the reverse.

    If projects are federalized that means, as a general rule, that they’re paid for by Chicagoans, New Yorkers, etc. while others reap the benefits.

    What I’m arguing for, essentially, is a return to the principle of subsidiarity at least to some degree.

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