Infrastructure Overview: Are Regions the Adults in This Room?

11.6.2013 | Cities and regions may finally be digging out from the recession and seeing light at the end of the fiscal tunnel. But before you expect your municipality to deliver all that and a sparkly pony, don’t forget: This good news means that cities and regions can finally begin addressing the backlog of infrastructure problems.

Bang goes the sparkly pony.

Of course, that pony was practically in the glue factory anyway—the 2013 U.S. infrastructure grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers is a dismal D+, and this Congress is all but guaranteed to do nothing about it.

That leaves states and metropolitan regions to take up the funding slack for the time being. There is no shortage of good ideas out there, some of which we’ll explore shortly; but without more and more dedicated funding for them from both federal and state governments, they’re likely to remain just that: good ideas. In other cases, money is being slated for, or spent on 20th century projects that seem good candidates for failure in the 21st.

Next City’s new infrastructure blog, The Works, (sponsored by The Surdna Foundation) “explores next generation infrastructure across the United States.” Its front-pagers are currently a bit Northeast-centric, though that’s understandable at the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in New Jersey and New York City. They feature an overview of the new Calatrava-designed PATH terminal at the World Trade Center, a look at MTA’s examination of flood gates for subway entrances, and the potential for a rail link between New Jersey and Staten Island.

Moving west, The Urbanophile has an ongoing discussion of bridge projects that are possible (or probable) boondoggles—whether crossing the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky, or the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington—or new interstate highways that don’t seem to make much economic sense. The Transportation Issues Daily‘s take on the Columbia River Crossing controversy is available here, along with a look at how Snohomish County, Washington (just north of the Seattle-Bellevue metro region) is looking to strengthen its manufacturing sector while Vancouver, Washington, residents fight over whether a new, badly needed, I-5 bridge should include light rail and bicycle lanes between their city and Portland, Oregon.

The $3.4 billion Columbia River Crossing project would have replaced the current three-lane I-5 bridges (one northbound, one southbound) that are also vertical lift drawbridges—any time a tall-enough ship passes through, the bridges lift and interstate highway traffic comes to a halt. The new bridge would have included space for Portland’s MAX light rail system and bicycle lanes. Many in Clark County, Washington, opposed the light rail link while Oregon opponents criticized the project as a guarantor of more sprawl. Republican opposition in Washington’s state Senate earlier this year essentially killed the project, but Oregon is now looking at an “Oregon only” version.

The Transportation Issues Daily also had this to note:

The debate between bike and roads advocates sometimes seems nearly as ugly—and unproductive—as a Congressional debate. So we were encouraged to read the moderate, solution-oriented comments from Michelle Mowery, the twenty-year bike czar for City of Los Angeles. A city which, by the way, has 337 miles of dedicated bike lanes, and plans for 1,684 miles of bike lanes, routes, and paths.

Back here in Chicago, the Illiana Expressway project recently won approval from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning despite being opposed by CMAP’s own staff and the Metropolitan Planning Council (another regional agency with some clout). The Illiana would run about 47 miles between I-55 in Illinois and I-65 in Indiana and is intended to relieve cross-country truck traffic that currently chokes the I-80/94 corridor. CMAP’s Go To 2040 regional plan tagged the Illiana as “fiscally unconstrained” while the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission’s 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan called it “illustrative.”

CMAP staff’s report said Illinois’ official cost estimate of $1.25 billion “is low relative to other comparable projects” and that a “more detailed cost estimate would be required to perform a robust evaluation of the proposed project’s financial viability and its impact on Go To 2040’s fiscal constraint.” The report also said more information needed to be released. CMAP’s board voted 10-4 against the Illiana on Oct. 9 (and called out what it said was sustained political pressure), but its Metropolitan Planning Organization policy committee OK’d the Illiana on Oct. 17.

The Metropolitan Planning Council also focuses on water resource issues, which is an often overlooked facet of regionalism and resilience. This is no small matter, as the history of the Colorado River Compact has shown. I have no idea exactly how global warming will affect water resources, but it will.

We at BRR, of course, have covered infrastructure many times in this space, including:


Photo / Amy Dobrowolsky

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