Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Infrastructure – America’s Biggest Challenge?

Dateline: 4:38 pm June 16, 2008 Filed under:

It has been nearly one year since the 35W bridge collapse in my beloved Minneapolis, and in that time three major bridges across the Mississippi throughout Minnesota have been closed due to safety concerns. Luckily, those three bridge projects have been fast-tracked, and our state legislature has also bravely approved a gas and sales tax increase to put towards both maintenance of existing as well as new projects.

On a related note, a recent publication by the Urban Land Institute titled Infrastructure 2008 makes a compelling case that the United States needs to get its act together and improve its infrastructure overall. I couldn’t agree more. As I sit in a crowded Chicago O’Hare airport, it kind of hits home. Think of how many of these people could be on high speed rail headed to destinations of less than 500 miles? Me, for one.

I have written in the past about the really terrific Amtrak service between Chicago and Milwaukee (well, terrific by Amtrak standards – they could use hot coffee service). I should be on a high speed train home to Minneapolis now, rather than waiting for a bogged down airport to release me home. High speed rail throughout the Midwest, from Chicago to Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Des Moines, Detroit, St. Louis, etc., could alleviate a whole lot of pressure in air traffic, and actually have a nationwide impact.

And just last night I sat with friends in Chicago and learned that the high speed rail service from the new Block 37 development in the Loop to both O’Hare and Midway is underfunded and delayed, which only aggravates an already overloaded CTA. The CTA in general is quite a mess, around $6 billion in the hole just to restore tracks to good condition and eliminate slow zones. Ouch! The transit problems in Chicago are not unique to other American metro areas, either.

I rode Amtrak between Philadelphia and Washington DC last week. Acela service began a few years ago, and I considered taking it. But checking the timetable, I’d spend roughly twice the amount of money and wouldn’t get there much faster. That is because they bought the trains but never improved the trackage for the higher speed. That drives me nuts!

Yes we need to maintain our bridges, levees, dams, highways and airports. But we do need to find ways to fund better systems like high speed rail. I learned last week that the Maglev high-speed train was invented in America, but we have yet to use it anywhere in this country. I suspect funding and political will (they can be the same thing) are the culprits. We are clearly well-intended but need to find more ways to fund a better infrastructure to keep our cities and economy competitive. It is all linked together, just not very well, I’m afraid.

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