Friday, May 11, 2012

The Costs of Not Spending Money on Roads

One of the major problems with this country's current political system, and this is true in many other countries, is how politicians exert power over a large number of fields in which they have little knowledge. Transportation is, of course, one such field. This isn't the 19th century where it was easier to be a master of many disciplines; knowledge today is more specialized and experts more specific in their skills. The people in charge of funding transportation have no idea how to do it effectively.

Case in point -- a recent article from points to research that states our poorly maintained roads are costing the average licensed driver $324 a year from repairs and other effects. Few people really think about this, but by not spending money in many cases it can cost you even more money down the line. Influenced by the "tea party," the state of politics right now is to slash and burn government spending, hoping it cuts the federal and state deficits and (somehow) frees the economy. The problem is that cutting more money from the transportation system won't make it more efficient; it could destroy the infrastructure on which our economy has a heavy reliance. Rebuilding from scratch is even more expensive (in most cases.)

The article also mentions that the Portland Bureau of Transportation rates 26% of its roads are poor or very
condition. This not only affects the average commuter but commercial industries who need the roads to deliver food, other supplies and bikes to Portland residents. You can't have a fourth of your roads failing, and you aren't going to save money by not fixing them. This isn't even an issue you can argue about.

Crawling out of a deficit means you have to make wise investments and use you money wisely. Keeping the infrastructure well-maintained is one of those wise investments so you don't have an entire fleet of cars used by citizens, the government and private industry slowly wrecked by potholes and disintegrating pavement. It's why you buy a case for your camera -- in the long run it'll save you money because the expensive equipment won't be damaged.

How do you make up this gap? One proposal calls for the federal gas tax to be increased from 18.4 cents to 29. Although it seems like a big jump ultimately it would not be ground-shattering -- ten cents out of 4 dollar a gallon gas versus the 18.4 cents we had when gas was near one dollar a gallon is not the same rate of change. The tax has lost 33% of its power due to inflation, which should tell you why so many roads are in terrible condition. And, believe me, I'm the type of (poor) user who's hurt by small price changes. This is one the country can survive.

Unfortunately, politics will make any sort of rational funding a pipe dream. The best hope is that the situation will get so bad it can't be ignored. It's a bright future.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Infrastructure: The Invisible Hand That Feeds

Your daily commute is riddled by potholes that decorate the local main roads and highways. The pavement appears rough, broken, with jagged edges and patchwork splotches of darker colors where in the distant past someone has attempted to fix a full body injury with a small band-aid. Every single day your car bounces down the road, reverberating with each pavement indentation, and the drink in your hand sloshes violently, spilling over the side. If you were as poor at your job as this, you reason, you'd be fired. How can such terrible infrastructure happen?

Infrastructure is vital to any civilization. If a country is to grow or progress, or even function, some sort of infrastructure is needed. It acts like the circulatory system does to the body, delivering blood and other important constitutes to where it's needed, or the digestive system, transporting food to the appropriate location in the body and breaking it down into energy. Outside of weird analogies to the human body, a country really does need to move food from one side to the other, either from a region of farmlands to city centers or from a port, or some way to move vital services like firetrucks and ambulances.

Unfortunately, a successful infrastructure is virtually invisible. The meaning of the word at the most fundamental level is the physical transfer of goods from one place to another -- even the internet needs physical lines to transmit the digital information. The transfer itself is most important. It ultimately doesn't matter what the water pipes look like or how large they are; what's important is that water is provided to the populated safely and when it's needed. What this means is that the better infrastructure is, generally, the more you don't notice it, which makes it more difficult to justify expenses year after year to the public. What's sad is that the infrastructure that stands out is what fails -- bridge collapses, e. coli scares, car crashes, and even potholes.

Since the benefits from infrastructure are wide-ranging and hidden by interactions with multiple steps -- clean, reliable, affordable water means that a family can buy a washing machine easily, which allows a company producing washing machines to operate in a stable business environment -- what is gained for the private sector is not always understood. Some people may see the public sector as a waste of money that drains the rest of the economy, but at least for infrastructure it's what helps build an economy. Private companies in the US rely on just-in-time delivery, which reduces inventory and costs; that would not be possible without a reliable and efficient transportation system that could support a complex and fast freight network. There's certainly room to improve transportation in this country, but it's still at a level where it can deliver goods from one ocean to the other in a remarkable amount of time.

That's one specific fact that's taken for granted. It's absolutely amazing that we can travel thousands of miles in a few days or even hours by plane. That's a trip that used to take months and years, and many people would die along the way. There are also more common examples of how we all take for granted infrastructure. Crossing most bridges is a forgettable daily activity we have to do to access more vital things like going to work or picking up groceries. A bridge is an astounding human accomplishment that modifies nature to make things easier for people. That sort of large scale and analytic development to change our environment is what separates us from the animals.

In fact, advances in the future could change the very nature of infrastructure. For an extreme example, think of a sci-fi teleportation device. Let's ignore quantum tunneling, wormholes, and other bits of theoretical physics. What it does is take the core principle of what transportation is without any superfluous medium like a road. It's perfection in terms of what transportation is trying to do in seamlessly moving people and goods. You're not shown the complex physics and amazing technology that allows an individual to travel a great distance in the blink of an eye instantaneously; all you know is that you're there one second and here the next -- it's all about the here and there.

That pothole-filled road is not part of a Greek myth to burden your journey. Without those roads (or rails or trails) you could not have traveled to school that granted you an education, to your first job interview, visited, your first love, bought your car, or done many of things that make you who you are, and that doesn't even mention the rest of the infrastructure sphere that has shaped your life. It's a gift that we live an age where the questions we have about our drinking water are along the lines of, Is there too much disinfectant? and not, Will we have enough so our children won't die? We cannot forget the incredible work that has gone into building the structure of civilization.

Don't frown at that pothole. The very fact that it exists means you were fortunate enough to have a road.