Paved with good intentions

How can a country that is so wealthy be in such enormous debt? How can a country that can build such marvelous transportation systems not find the money to sustain them? How can a people that enjoyed decades of unrivaled economic hegemony — staggering levels of growth beyond anything seen in human history — be facing such economic turmoil after a couple years of, not even decline, but just slowing growth? The answer to these questions reveal some uncomfortable truths about who we are, how we got here and what options we have for our future prosperity.

I’m struck by how strongly our culture associates growth and prosperity with highway construction and expansion. Tom Friedman, a respected left-of-center columnist with the New York Times, had an entire chapter in his most recent book, That Used to Be Us: How America fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back, devoted to the concept that “our winning equation” is, in part, to invest in infrastructure and then watch prosperity flourish, just like it did in the 1950′s and 1960′s.

Of course, this ignores that fact that our investments during the first generation of America’s Suburban Experiment (1950-1975) were higher return investments that generated a lot of positive cash flow. I like to point out that, when we built the 35W bridge here in Minnesota for the first time, it connected far flung areas of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan region in a way that had not been done before. Following that investment, new commercial real estate was developed, new residential housing went in and the resulting influx of tax receipts made us feel wealthy. When the bridge fell down and had to be rebuilt, we didn’t experience all that new growth, just the costs of construction and delay. Maintenance has an entirely different set of financial metrics than new construction.