Tag Archives: infrastructure

Missing the Bus

A couple of days ago, I had to catch a flight at Dulles Airport. This is a considerable inconvenience: although Dulles supposedly serves Washington, DC, where I live, getting from Washington to Dulles can take longer than getting from Dulles to your destination. It can be expensive, too. The cab fare is upwards of 80 bucks. So to reach the airport, I took the 5A bus.
I boarded at L’Enfant Plaza, a dead zone of 1960s architecture in Southwest Washington. Only four other passengers joined me, aboard a bus without a luggage rack. Having made this trip before, I knew where my suitcase should go: in front of the rear exit door. The two Brits who boarded with me didn’t believe this was necessary.
They were convinced when we pulled up to the next stop, at Rosslyn, just across the river in Northern Virginia, to find a small army awaiting. Perhaps 50 people climbed on board. The first few put their luggage by the exit door, next to mine, making the emergency exit absolutely inaccessible in the event of an emergency. The next three dozen sat with their suitcases on their laps. Another 15 stood in the aisle, with one hand on their roller boards, the other grasping the silver handrail above their heads. Fifteen or 20 more were left at curbside, informed that the bus was full, and that they’d have to wait for the next one.
All in all, the hour-long ride on the 5A is a pretty lousy way for Metro, the Washington area’s main transit agency, to treat its customers, and it’s certainly not a nice way for the nation’s capital to greet its visitors. It’s worth asking why this problem can’t be fixed.
The answer, of course, is that it is being fixed. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the agency that runs Dulles Airport, is building a rail line to the airport. The first phase opened last year. The second, supposedly, will open in 2020. Together, they will cost at least $5.8 billion, a good hunk of it supplied by the federal government. When the Silver Line is finished, passengers may have a more comfortable trip from Washington to Dulles Airport, but that trip will take even longer on a Metro train than it does on the 5A bus.
We’ve heard a great deal of lamentation about America’s infrastructure crisis, about the purported lack of investment in vital transportation facilities. There are, indeed, places where the infrastructure is crumbling. But it is equally true that we have a marked preference for expensive solutions to our transportation problems. Yes, I know that many people besides airline passengers will ride the Silver Line. But I also know that for a great deal less than $5.8 billion, and in a matter of weeks rather than five years, Metro and the airports authority could provide more frequent service between Washington and Dulles. They could introduce luggage racks, so passengers who’ve paid $7 for the ride don’t have to spend an hour with their suitcases on their laps. With a better, more comfortable bus service, they might even manage to reverse the declining passenger numbers at Dulles by proving that the airport is not so hard to get to.
Innovation is a tough slog in the public transportation business. Too often, the folks who run transportation agencies associate innovation with expensive new equipment, custom-built infrastructure, and whizzy branding. But as I showed a couple of years ago when I described how the grocery chain A&P became the biggest retailer in the world, the best innovations often involve nothing more than better ways of doing business. It’s a lesson the folks at Metro and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority could stand to learn: a frequent, less uncomfortable bus service that gets passengers to the airport on time would be a valuable innovation.

Maybe We Have Too Much Infrastructure

Not far from where I used to live, in New Jersey, a light rail line rumbles between Newark Penn Station and the much smaller Broad Street Station, on the other side of downtown. This line, about a mile long, opened in 2006, and it cost more than $200 million to build. It was projected to serve 13,300 riders a day by 2015. Actual ridership, though, is just a few hundred. You won’t have trouble finding a seat.

The Broad Street extension is an example of a problem people don’t much like to talk about: misguided infrastructure spending. We constantly hear complaints about inadequate infrastructure, from the archaic main terminal at LaGuardia to the all-day traffic jams at Chicago Circle, and armies of consultants roam the world helping justify yet more projects. The truth, though, is that a great deal of our existing infrastructure is poorly used, and taxpayers often are on the hook for new projects that don’t produce the expected returns.

This isn’t just an American problem. Last week, I was in Europe, where there has been massive investment in container ports to handle the extremely large vessels now coming on line. These ships carry the equivalent of 9,000 truck-size containers, and to accommodate them ports are deepening their channels, lengthening their wharves, expanding their storage areas, and installing bigger cranes. Every port wants the mega-ships to call. The ship lines that own these vessels, though, don’t want to stop in every port; they want their ships to spend as little time in port as possible. Moreover, as these giant ships replace smaller vessels, most ports will see fewer containerships, not more. The bottom line: Europe’s ports now have far more container-handling capacity than required. That overcapacity increases the ship lines’ ability to play one port off against another to force port charges down, making it even harder for port operators to recover the cost of their investments and increasing the likelihood that taxpayers will be forced to pay up.

Container ports are not the only place where there’s excess infrastructure. In the United States, several relatively new toll roads are attracting far less traffic than projected. Pittsburgh airport demolished one of its concourses after passenger numbers plummeted, and the near-empty terminals at Kansas City airport can be spooky. Japan’s high-speed trains are wonderful–but while some carry extremely heavy traffic, others appear to be rather underutilized. There seems to be a surplus of convention centers almost everywhere, and the world is full of stadiums that receive only occasional use.

So while there may be many places where today’s infrastructure is inadequate, claims of an infrastructure crisis deserve careful scrutiny. Often enough, users of infrastructure, such as transportation companies or sports teams, want governments to bear the risk of building facilities that the private sector may, or may not, choose to use. Governments have a hard time saying no to such demands: what politician wants to face accusations that his or her inaction caused a business to leave town? But building too much infrastructure may well leave tomorrow’s taxpayers facing the bill for today’s mistakes.