Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Next Bubble...

Ok, I was going to write this post a long time ago, but I never got around to it.

So, we know now that the housing market was in fact a bubble and that homes were greatly over-valued, etc.

Well, we here in the United States have quite a few bubbles that are still waiting to burst, in my opinion.

One such bubble could be that of our infrastructure. How can something like infrastructure possibly be considered a bubble, you ask? After all, it is in dire need of repair and maintenance...

That's just it though... Take transportation infrastructure. Since people and jobs keep moving, the infrastructure constantly needs to be built and re-built. This is a great stimulus for contractors and design firms who will always have a source of projects.

Here's the bubble part: There is an industry that is motivated to keep designing and building more and more roads, rails, transit, etc. The problem now is that resources (especially public funds) are and should be much more scrutinized. Have we built too much infrastructure to be sustainable without devouring vast budgets or begging the feds for stimulus? Eventually the public will realize that maybe people got a little overambitious with projects and need to cut back. Is building a million or billion dollar roadway project really worth it to "save" 5 minutes off of everyone's commute? How much additional revenue will really be generated? Is anyone following up on the accuracy of the studies making claims of the merits of various projects?
What happens when gas prices go sky-high and demand for roads are reduced? What happens when a town's population and tax base decrease leaving crumbling roads as a reminder?

True, big projects are monuments to engineering... but what people need is everyday functionality and economy of which they can still be proud. The re-phasing of an intersection or a well-placed sidewalk can be so much more valuable than a new interchange.

We can keep adding lanes and treating symptoms while spending more and more resources with each expansion, or we can get creative, get back to basics and work with what we've got. Instead of adding lanes, why can 't we add reliable (maybe even profitable!) transit service? If a road is not that important, pave it less or downgrade it--maybe turn it into a bicycle-highway. No one likes to move backward, but in tight times, we need to move back to reality to move forward. Then we can focus our resources on the really critical, most-bang-for-our-buck, infrastructure.

If we want to be smart and sustainable about the way we are investing our resources in infrastructure, then we need to stop building throw-away roads, throw-away houses, and throw-away suburbs.--I'll ponder this more in a future post.

What do you all think?