Even Larry Summers gets it (boldface mine):
The world is said to progress, but things that would once have seemed easy now seem hard. The Rhine is much wider than the Charles, yet Gen. George S. Patton needed just a day to create bridges that permitted squadrons of tanks to get across it. It will take almost half as long to fix that escalator in LaGuardia as it took to build the Empire State Building 85 years ago.
Is it any wonder that the American people have lost faith in the future and in institutions of all kinds? If rudimentary tasks like keeping escalators going and bridges repaired are too much for us to handle, it is little wonder that disillusionment and cynicism flourish….
Although it is in an airport, failure cannot be blamed on public authorities. The airline that previously owned the shuttle terminal scrimped on maintenance for years and allowed the escalator in question to be stripped for spare parts to support other escalators. Necessary maintenance was delayed for a decade because of the need to generate cash flow so as to meet debt covenants. The new owner has many priorities; the replacement of the escalator system is only one.
On the other hand, repair of the bridge across the Charles is the responsibility of local governments. A combination of budgetary short-sightedness, excessively rigid labor practices and a failure to take account of the costs of traffic delays appears to account for the project’s remarkably long gestation.
While much political debate takes place on a macro level, focusing on large-scale changes in spending, tax or regulatory policies, I suspect that much of what frustrates the public happens on a more micro scale. A government that has to install nets under bridges to catch falling debris will not inspire confidence when it aspires to rebuild other nations. When major companies cannibalize their machinery for spare parts, it is hardly surprising that they are not trusted to embark on voluntary long-run programs to control greenhouse gases, promote diversity or develop technologies.
What is to be done? First, the focus of infrastructure discussions needs to shift from major new projects whose initiation and completion can be the occasion for grand celebration to more prosaic issues of upkeep, maintenance and project implementation. For example, before anyone contemplates spiffy new high-speed rail systems, consideration should be given to repairing existing lines and stations.
As we often write around here, people have to like this crap. Fix all the broken things. Do it now. The federal government can’t run out of currency it can issue, and no one is claiming that our infrastructure deficiencies are due to limitations in the real economy.
Not that it will happen with Republicans running things.