04/10/2009 05:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Risky Business: On The Sexiness Of Infrastructure

When I traveled to the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in Miami last year (more of a party than it sounds), I asked a handful of mayors why there was insufficient public support for spending on infrastructure in the United States. After all, that irksome phrase "crumbling infrastructure" dominated the airwaves well after the Minnesota bridge collapse. (So much so that one can quite easily imagine Stimulus Sheriff Joe Biden inspecting a bridge and remarking that it is, literally, crumbling.) The mayors, well versed in their Conference of Mayors talking points, invariably replied that they, along with the media and politicians, needed to make the subject of infrastructure "sexy".

Whether they were successful or not (I have my doubts), infrastructure has recently been on everyone's radar screen. The American Society of Civil Engineers has scared every reporter in the country with its $2.2 trillion infrastructure deficit and spending on roads, bridges, and the like was touted as great economic stimulus. The recovery package devotes about $126 billion to such spending.

Though expenditure of the funds has been slow and an inordinate amount of sidewalks are being constructed, attention has finally been turned to this significant issue. The problem, as the proliferation of sidewalks to nowhere demonstrates, is what to spend all this money on.

At the Atlantic Politics blog, Chris Good sought out Col. Bob Stephan, formerly assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security, for clarification. Col. Stephan is understandably concerned about how the stimulus funds are being spent and, in particular, worries that infrastructure "that pose[s] the greatest safety risks should be attended to first" (Good's paraphrasing). Infrastructure spending should be based on risk. In other words, on avoiding another Minnesota bridge collapse.

While Col. Stephan's points are both valid and important to keep in mind, he ends up conflating "projects of national significance" with "risk of disaster". Fixing up dangerous bridges and roads and only then moving on to projects that encourage less driving or improve electricity transmission is simply counterproductive.

In fact, infrastructure spending on "projects of national significance" involves taking into account land use, mobility, alternative transportation options, and population density, among myriad other factors. Deciding to repair a bridge instead of increasing parking capacity at an end-of-the-line train stop is not simply about calculating the number of people who might perish if the bridge collapsed. In fact, it must subsume the benefits and the costs of drivers switching to transit because of the increased parking space, of drivers increasing usage of a bridge they know has been repaired, of the increased opportunities for development around the train stop.

People should never die because some critical (or not critical) piece of infrastructure has not been repaired. Indeed, potholes on I-95 should probably be fixed before pretty much anything else. But criteria that require infrastructure spending on projects of national significance involve much more than safety concerns. Such a policy would leave little room for investment in the projects necessary for an economic recovery that involves improved land use, development, and energy efficiency, the keys to a recovery that works for the majority of Americans.