Seven ways to improve U.S. infrastructure spending

Here is a column full of good sense from Edward Glaeser, excerpt:

SPLIT UP THE PORT AUTHORITY: Last week gave us another painful audit of the work by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to manage the World Trade Center site. I’m not going to pile on, but this super-entity is too big to succeed. How can the Port Authority possibly focus on tasks such as making New York’s airports more functional when it has so much else on its plate?

The problems at John F. Kennedy International Airport aren’t evidence of the need for a new federal infrastructure agenda, they indicate only that the Port Authority has too much to do. Splitting off the airports, probably into two separate entities (for New York and New Jersey), could generate managerial focus and more competition. The airports can fund themselves if they are free to charge higher landing fees. Millions of fliers into New York should be perfectly willing to pay a bit more to ensure a more pleasant experience. More nimble and less restricted airports would help that happen.

It is one of my “hobby horses” to note that for all the money we spent on fiscal stimulus, air transport in and out of America’s major city remains a total, unworkable mess.


The banks are super-entities too. Break them up too.

Exactly. What fundamentally makes large banks a good idea but a large port authority a bad idea?

Is there a economy of scale in one and not the other? Is the Principal Agent problem worse?


What fundamentally makes large banks a good idea but a large port authority a bad idea?

Banks generate money for wealthy people. As an economist Tyler can't be advocating policies that hurt the wealthy.

Do you see a difference between allowing large banks and running large infrastructure monopolies?

I do. For one, not allowing large banks is a band-aid over the epic fail of the government's primary responsibility of property protection that happens in what we call bankruptcy.

As long as there are huge banks they will have the resources to buy off enough politicians to ensure they will never have to face bankruptcy and can always ensure themselves endless bailouts.

I don't buy that assertion. But again, at least they have to lobby for a bailout as compared to a government agency that gets one automatically and is de facto bailed out every single year by taxpayers.

Politicians come very cheap relative to the banker's profit it's hardly any effort for them to lobby at all. If you don't buy it then you are simply willfully blind.

"all the money we spent on fiscal stimulus, air transport in and out of America’s major city remains a total, unworkable mess."

So what? A LOT of union jobs are created, which means a lot of union dues are paid, a lot of which gets transferred directly into the coffers of Democrat politicians.

The mission, as they say, has been accomplished. Stop trying to distract people.

>It is one of my “hobby horses” to note that for all the money we spent on fiscal stimulus, air transport in and out of America’s major city remains a total, unworkable mess.

A commercial plane designed to fly between Americas east cost cities slowly and with not many passengers would need much less security as the plane would not have enough energy to be useful to a terrorist

Could we make planes worse to improve transport?

What would be the size of plane that wouldn't need terrorism security? I wonder, not knowing anything, if airports are the key. It's funny to me how we can screw up a stretch of straight blacktop.

Airport terrorism security is funny. To preserve fairly anonymous travel, we have to feel your scrote multiple times. I daresay you know me better than anyone.

There are other proponents of the same idea; for reasons of fuel economy. With the rising cost of fuel small reductions in optimum cruise design speed can drastically improve fuel economy. I believe we might see a turboprop resurgence on some routes.

We already have. Regional and feeder airlines have changed from regional jets to turboprops on lots of routes over the last few years.

Really? I had thought the trend was solidly in the other direction, but maybe I'm a few years behind. I thought AMR, for example, got rid of all it's turbo props. Or was it just DFW and ORD?

I still see some Delta-branded (Mesaba I assume), turbo props at MSP, I guess.

Bus good, train bad.

Truer words have seldom come out of Harvard!

"air transport in and out of America’s major city remains a total, unworkable mess"

I've flown in and out of New York many times. Worked just fine.

Getting from the airport to where I need to go is usually a bigger problem.


Afternoon shuttles out of Laguardia in the summer are notorious for being delayed. I used to fly back and forth from LGA to DCA all the time, and it could be a real problem.

But I guess I read Tyler's comment as including the difficulty of getting to and from the airports too.

You must have flown on crystal-clear days at 7 a.m. Delays at the NY/NJ airports begin with the lightest sprinkle. Landing times have to be spaced out, and the bottleneck begins.
Whenever I fly, I assume four hours of delay.

That assumes that the bottleneck originated in NYC. Bad weather in one part of the US can cause cascading delays throughout the US. Those delays are a mix of infrastructure, airline management, airport-imposed delays and lack of pricing of take-off and landing rights.

Incidentally, Chicago is worse.

Either you're the far right tail, or I'm the far left. I live in the NY/NJ area for 2 years, and never once flew in or out without serious delays. I pretty much counted on the pilot telling us as we pulled away from the gate, "Well folks, looks like we're number 38 for takeoff," which meant at least a 45 minute wait until getting airborne. That was usually the best-case scenario.

I've lived in NY my whole life (actually about a 10 minute drive from LaGuardia) and I've had (seriously) delayed flights less than ten times.

Two things about gas taxes. First, ever improving MPG means gas taxes will provide less in the future. A mileage tax is better.
Second, even the gas tax would work better if it were used for its original purpose. The tax, which was meant to pay for roads, is now used for to fund various forms of transportation, including bike paths and lighthouses.

Theoretically if MPG improves to the point where the decline in gas taxes hurts a lot; can't we ramp up the tax rate to compensate? If a person consumes 5 gallons a week instead of 10; would it matter if his tax goes up from 10% to 20%?

What are the taxation theory implications?

Increasing gas tax rates don't compensate as a long-term strategy. What if an alternative energy source takes off and you end up using 0 gallons?

Mileage tax makes more sense, but is much more Big-Brother-sounding than the existing easy-to-collect anonymous gas tax.

I believe there are no obvious solutions.

I say, let's worry about that problem when we get there. What percent of mileage today is run of alternative energy?

Maybe we can selectively require only non-conventional vehicles to install mileage meters. Why replace a simple tax system that's not broken yet?

It's not that mileage based taxation is "much more Big-Brother-sounding", but that mileage based taxation is much more Big Brother in implementation. If they're really set on doing a mileage based tax, the simple solution is to read the odometer when you have your yearly inspection (at least, for places that do that; how many states don't?). It's simple, inexpensive, and easy to implement. Yet it is _never_ the method proposed.
Instead, every single implementation for this that I've ever seen involves some kind of sophisticated always-on GPS tracking. Anyone who's paid remote attention to the warrant-less GPS tracking cases in the courts will understand why this just reeks of "will be misused as soon as implemented". There's probably a measure of "kickbacks from the device manufacturers" involved here (installing these in every current car means big volume, so even a small cut of a small profit is big numbers), but that never seems to be the whole story.

Are urban bike paths not roads? Or, at the very least, a direct substitute for roads (for every biker there is one less car)? Or are we talking about mountain bike paths here.

Urban bike paths are not roads. Come on, be realistic. And no, the hikes won't keep up.

Have we really seen ever improving MPG?

The Port Authority's problem is not size. It's certainly not as big or far-flung as, say, GE.

The problem is a lack of accountability. It is an organization with tremendous powers to raise money from public works. It is not accountable to taxpayers or voters, but to a board divided between political appointees from New York and New Jersey.

It's a common structure in the northeast, and the structure is ripe for project creep. Witness a tunnel/bridge/airport authority building high-rises. (JTA that it is adding office space to a part of the city that is already so overbuilt that the hot trend is to convert office space to condos.) Or (my favorite) the old Garden State Parkway Authority, which was so rich it built a concert venue.

And the politicians like the structure, because it allows them to cut lots of ribbons but dodge (wait for it!) accountability when the authority raises prices.

A case study of the agency problem would begin with the Port Authority.

How exactly is air transport into NYC a mess?

You've got three airports; one has good transit connection, one has a connection, and the other is a cab ride away.

Not great for Manhattan perhaps, but I guess professors can't afford helicopters like the rest of us.

The problem with New York's airports is partially on the ground, but it is also an airspace capacity issue in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia area. Resolving the airspace issue requires a redesign of the air routes into and out of each airport and the completion of the FAA's air traffic control system overhaul ("NextGen"). PANY/NJ can't do much about that issue, not that they're not trying. JFK and LGA are implementing ground traffic management programs that are significantly reducing taxi times and fuel consumption, for example.

The airspace issue is not amenable to a stimulus solution either -- the "resources" that are needed for it are skilled specialists who are not at all idle and long-term FAA funding has been a political football for several years (which set back NextGen's development). It's not like a stimulus package would suddenly produce another MITRE or FAA staffed with qualified engineers and air traffic control experts to actually do the work.

(Interestingly, airspace redesign is one of those "new economy" type investments that will create incredible value but not have much direct impact on measured GDP because it requires a relatively small number of people who are already busy and it doesn't have a long domestic value chain behind it.)

Is the real bottleneck at the runway / taxiway level or in the air? I suspect the former; though approach control improvements can indeed ease the critical ground problems by allowing more routing flexibility and lesser separation etc.

It's both -- but fixing the air and ground traffic management inefficiencies will reduce delays/increase predictability regardless of new pavement. Space constraints at JFK/LGA/EWR/PHL (Jamaica Bay, Flushing Bay, I-95 and Delaware River, respectively) make expansion of physical capacity impossible in the short or medium term regardless of funding anyway.

Exactly. My point being throwing money at the non-bottle-necked parts of the system won't help much (even if admittedly the bottleneck itself is hard to resolve).

To take the specific case of the Port Authority, the organization is indeed a nightmare, but the solution in fact lies in greater centralization.

If this was a normal country, both the port of New York and the central business district would be run by the same local government authority, which would have jurisdiction over the entire New York metropolitan area, and would be elected by the people living in that area. And as a matter of course this authority would run the ports and airports in its metropolitan area, either through some sort of transportation authority or a different organization or organizations.

For those of you who have stopped laughing, taking how the U.S. does local government as a given, the Port Authority should be a federal agency. Its operations cross state lines, not to mention its impact on one of the most important ports in the country. It even has a role in the "war on terror". Just get the two most corrupt state governments in the country out of the business of running the agency and I'd think even small government types would be surprised how much things will improve.

I used to live in NYC. I had many terrible delays (including one where I was stuck on the plane on the tarmac for six hours). No fun. I also used to live in Toronto where landing costs are higher. This was back when Pearson airport had some of the highest landing fees in the world. I think it was number 1 or 2 there for a while. They've since cut the fees.

Not nearly as many problems in Toronto, but flights could be ridiculously expensive, so much so that I'd often opt for the three hour bus ride to Buffalo to get the much cheaper flight from there. The worst would be when I was flying back to Buffalo and there would be a delay and I'd miss the last bus back to Toronto and have to sit in the sketchy Greyhound terminal in Buffalo all night until I could get on the first bus back the next morning. That could tack on an extra 4-6 hours of very uncomfortable travel time.

I was a poor grad student at the time though, so my demand was pretty elastic given my budget constraints. That's how it's supposed to work though. Higher fees pushed out poor folk like me. And it wasn't just me. I knew many less-poor people who considered the extra three-hour bus ride (each way) a viable option given the price differential.

Point being, both were kind of crappy. Either way, it was a few extra hours of being uncomfortable. Due to my financial situation as a grad student, it basically came down to a bad experience I could afford, or a decent one that I couldn't. If I had been richer during my Toronto days, I'd probably have preferred Toronto's higher cost solution. Given that I wasn't, it kind of sucked.

In a sense, it's a bit like taking a step back to the days of air travel before deregulation where flying was more pleasant, but a lot less people were able to afford it. If you're the type that can afford it, it's better, but if you're not, well, it may just remove flying as a travel option.

Yeah but Pearson is shit - much like Toronto. There's simply no effective transportation out there, what a joke.

Wow, you've punched one of my buttons!

I agree completely. Anecdotally, consider transportation from JFK to Manhattan. There's an excellent tram (AirTrain) that will take you directly from your terminal to the Jamaica Station where you can easily catch the subway or LIRR, unfortunately there's no express train to Manhattan. As a result, what should be an easy 20-minute commute takes an hour. No wonder every one of my clients reacts in shock and calls a town car when i tell them i have to leave early to catch a train to the airport.

Yeah, getting into Manhattan from JFK or LaGuardia via public transport is not fun. Taxis and livery cabs love it I'm sure.

OK, serious question: why can't the Newark, LaGuardia and JFK airports just be privatized? Why should a government agency, regardless of size, be in charge of them? Hasn't this been done many places in Europe? What is the argument against?

Optimally there'd be two airports, one for "hub" flights that's not near the city; one for flights terminating (or beginning) in the city, that is near the city. Or, maybe, optimally a hub airport should be in the middle of nowhere. Its only purpose is to provide a place for you to change planes.

That's a good point; although it critically depends on what percent of the JFK / EWR / LGA passenger traffic flows are connections as opposed to terminating passengers. Anyone know an estimate?

My understanding is that the only one of the three New York area airports that was ever a hub for an airline was Newark (I'm not sure if it still is). New York's airports, like its train stations, are essentially terminals, people go to them because they are starting or leaving from New York. They change planes in Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas. There might be some transfers involving people arriving in or leaving the country.

For those who complain about the airport, you should recognize that if you are there for travel, then you are part of the problem. It's no different than complaining about car traffic in rush hour. If you are stuck in traffic complaining about how bad the traffic is, then you are part of the problem. You are also part of any solution.

"It is one of my “hobby horses” to note that for all the money we spent on fiscal stimulus, air transport in and out of America’s major city remains a total, unworkable mess."

And you are surprised by this because??? I mean, are you like "new" to the United States of America?

'It is one of my “hobby horses” to note that for all the money we spent on fiscal stimulus, air transport in and out of America’s major city remains a total, unworkable mess.'

Government money spent is not spent to fix things, its spent to help reelection. This mean that the money ends up getting spent mostly for hiring well connected people.

Reminds me of this terrifying article from 1997 about FAA traffic control in the tristate area:

But yes, I have rarely departed from LGA or JFK on time (Newark's slightly better, and I generally only take international flights from there). I've noticed airlines are definitely accounting for that in their published flight times though as my flights often take off 30-60 min delayed, but arrive fairly close to on time.

The trouble is, when the govt splits up big govt entities with too much on their plate, conservatives bemoan "more bureaucracy!"

When does that happen?

Meanwhile air transport in and out of Washington, D.C., with a single airport authority, works remarkably well.

As I understand it, in most countries airports are privately owned.

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