Thursday, November 20, 2008

Times columnist: hard data needed to support benefits of projects

David Leonhardt's Economic Scene column in yesterday's New York Times, headlined Piling Up Monuments of Waste, suggested that funding for the nation’s infrastructure was less of a problem than the inability to set credible priorities.

Scattershot system

Leonhardt writes:
It’s hard to exaggerate how scattershot the current system is. Government agencies usually don’t even have to do a rigorous analysis of a project or how it would affect traffic and the environment, relative to its cost and to the alternatives — before deciding whether to proceed. In one recent survey of local officials, almost 80 percent said they had based their decisions largely on politics, while fewer than 20 percent cited a project’s potential benefits.

There are monuments to the resulting waste all over the country: the little-traveled Bud Shuster Highway in western Pennsylvania; new highways in suburban St. Louis and suburban Maryland that won’t alleviate traffic; all the fancy government-subsidized sports stadiums that have replaced perfectly good existing stadiums. These are the Bridges to (Almost) Nowhere that actually got built.


Well, the Atlantic Yards arena wouldn't replace a "perfectly good arena," given that the aging Izod Center is in another state and, without public transportation, is not the easiest place to visit. But federal taxpayers would subsidize new construction, even while a new arena in Newark could use a basketball team.

And, while the environmental review process in New York was extensive, was it truly rigorous? After all, the Empire State Development Corporation counted benefits but not costs. And the press punted and never analyzed the study that Forest City Ratner paid for.

Hard data needed

Leonhardt observes:
But now wouldn’t be a bad time to send a message. The current system is so inefficient that even a minimal amount of change would represent progress. If you want your project moved to the front of the line, you should have to come to Washington bearing hard data — not flimsy boosterism — about its economic and environmental benefits.

While Atlantic Yards is (mostly) not an infrastructure project, the same argument goes applies. It's not enough for project proponents to say that it's needed ever more in hard times.

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