Monday, July 18, 2011

America at 400 Million: Public Infrastructure

This is one in a series of columns  about what's needed to get ready for a 400 million U.S. population. The concept is much in line with the concepts in the book by Joel Kotkin, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.

I was just over a year old when the U.S. population hit 200 million.  It was a big deal.  President Johnson was on hand when the Census proclaimed the 200th million American milestone was hit on November 21, 1967.

I was 40, in 2006, when the nation hit 300 million population.

It's widely accepted that the U.S. population will likely hit 400 million people in another 40 years, some time around 2040 to 2050.  Thus, I'll be somewhere around 80 years old, God willing, when that time comes.

The concept has me thinking about a lot of things, infrastructure is the first one that comes to mind.

When I think of the public infrastructure that has been developed in the past 40 years, I wonder what we are doing, as a nation, to prepare for another 100 million people in the next 40.

We need to keep building highway capacity.  Our highways can't handle 100 million more people and our current policies can't get it in gear enough to build what is needed.  That's got to change.

It won't be sufficient to continue to have policies that call for "fix it first" and ones that don't provide growth in tax revenue that comes from growth in highway capacity.  Rebuilt and reconfigured highways can't produce a steady, growing revenue stream for the highway builders.  Highway planners need to strike a balance between revenue-growing new highways and revenue-sucking, but still necessary, rebuilt ones.

Rail  will be more critical and needs a more critical focus.  I'm not talking about high speed passenger rail.  I'm talking about freight rail.  For decades, the rail industry has made more money scrapping its own rail lines and reducing its capacity than moving freight.  The lack of new highway capacity is going to, undoubtedly, require more freight to move by rail. 

Intermodal needs to become more commonplace.  Another way to get more out of our public infrastructure is to increase the number of intermodal yards.  Gantry cranes in small yards are not that expensive compared to building and rebuilding freight-overrun highways.

It's my observation that, right now, the largest rail carriers in the U.S. have a near-monopoly on intermodal service. They greatly favor a small number of large intermodal  container yards versus a large number of smaller ones. They call it balkinization to allow more yards, rather than less, and its a wrong-headed approach. 

Frankly, it may take some form of re-regulation of rails to require rail carriers to accept intermodal containers from short line railroads and smaller intermodal yards.  It needs to happen though.

Maximize the water ports.  The Ohio River uses only about a third of its capacity.  Also, very little freight moves by container up the river to Pittsburgh and points in between.  This is just one example from our vast waterways in the U.S.  The public infrastructure mix must include a capable lock and dam system on our rivers and continually open channels on the Great Lakes. 

Link to the ports.  The highway system should have a focus on linking better between our airports and our water ports to further maximize capacity.

The bottom line:  Public infrastructure has been critical to the last hundred million in the U.S. and will continue to be for the next hundred million.

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