Becoming Into Being: Infrastructure In Mind

The most recently departed decade was an unloved one wished good riddance by many, known mostly for terrorism, war, and economic depression. 

But the decade did a lot better in the area of one subject nearer to the hearts of many on this reading list, which is the care, feeding, and thinking about the systems that support us, nurture us, and make much of life possible: namely, infrastructure. 

I posit that the "aughts," as they have been called, were the decade of infrastructure. Sure, maybe we didn't spend enough on it, or even more than in previous decades (I know of no official list of infrastructure projects, so it's hard to tell). But I would argue that infrastructure did crystalize as a subject for the first time in the hearts and minds of the country's citizens and opinion leaders as a subject worthy of attention and focus. A decade ago, the word "infrastructure" was hardly known outside the specialized worlds of public works departments. Now editorial writers bandy it about without explanation and debate how much we should spend on it. 

The opening salvo in this attention on infrastructure may have been the attack on New York and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Although the twin towers arguably were not infrastructure themselves, they involved so many systems of rail lines, water lines, power lines and so forth, that the nation's attention was turned to them. In addition, the possibility that infrastructure systems in general, particularly transportation but also power and water, could be used as instruments of terror highlighted infrastructure's importance. When the city began to rebuild, attention turned almost immediately to making infrastructure, in the form of new or revamped train stations, a symbol of the country's capacity for renewal in the face of danger. One of those new stations, the new PATH station at World Trade Center, was designed by the most famous designer of infrastructure in the world, Santiago Calatrava. It's true that cutbacks have had to be made in his design, but I personally am hopeful that the essence of it will still emerge.

Then there was the bridge collapsing in Minneapolis, in 2007. This focused our attention on the vast litany of rusting and decrepit bridges, among other infrastructure, and the need for funds to repair them. The replacement bridge was built and opened in just over a year — a compliment to the capacity of professionals to work fast when needed.

When the 2008 presidential campaign reached its frenetic peak in the year previous, there was the future President Barack Obama campaigning on something called an "infrastructure bank." Once elected, he would persuade a relatively compliant Congress into appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars for all types of infrastructure as an investment in the future and a means to jump-start the economy. Not incidentally, this spending included billions for intercity train travel, whose initial grants were just announced. This is the first significant investment in intercity train travel in at least a generation.

In addition to projects relating to 9/11, we here in New York City and the region began working on both the Second Avenue subway and an additional tunnel under the Hudson River. It was the decade of the new Montclair Connection and Secaucus Junction. It was the decade of new and revamped light rail lines, and the extension of the Seventh Avenue subway line. 

Turning our attention abroad, China, India, Korea, Spain and other countries began building highways, airports, entire new subway systems, and high-speed rail lines at furious rates. It was the decade that breathtakingly beautiful bridges opened in Europe, like the Millau Viaduct in France and the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. This rising tide of mega-projects would help pressure the United States to at least contemplate spending and investing more on similar projects.

We began to use our streets more wisely, which are after all a kind of infrastructure. Rather than just being concourses for cars, streets were opened to cyclists, pedestrians, and even loungers. Cities from Chattanooga to St. Louis began converting one-way streets back to two-way streets, to better accommodate a diverse street environment. The New York City Department of Transportation under Janette Sadik-Khan converted busy streets in Times Square into well-used parks and plazas for locals and tourists.

But it's not just about projects. We began to understand better how infrastructure is paid for — or not. There was greater acceptance that government subsidizes all forms of transportation, and that no mode pays for itself. The latest on roads was a 2009 study by the Texas Transportation Institute, which concluded that "there is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today." A typical example was a highway outside Houston that was projected to cost $1 billion over its 40-year life span and generate only $162 million in gas taxes.

With no mode of transportation paying for itself, it was easier to start discussing in reasonable tones which transportation mode was best in a given situation. To be "mode-neutral" was another concept that came about this last decade. It was a decade where "green" or "smart" infrastructure came into being, when a water engineer was as likely to recommend protecting a watershed as building a new filtration plant.

This decade gave us a bumpy ride economically, as well as in terms of war, terrorism and other big subjects. But in terms of infrastructure, I think we're getting somewhere.