Infrastructure Needs a Bill of Its Own

President Obama is the first urbanite in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt. He certainly knows the vital role that cities play in America. Yet despite the Chicagoan on Pennsylvania Avenue, infrastructure spending in the House stimulus bill follows a business-as-usual pattern that discriminates against density.

The only way to break that pattern is to take non-repair-related infrastructure spending out of the stimulus, and craft a separate bill that looks beyond the current recession. Major infrastructure projects, especially in cities, cannot be done quickly.

Per-capita transportation spending in the House stimulus package, including transit, is more than 50% higher in the 10 least-dense states than in the 10 densest states, including Massachusetts. Yet America’s highways and rails already make it easy to move goods and people across America’s open spaces. The hard slog is getting across dense downtowns.

Other elements in the stimulus package also favor farm over city. The subsidies for broadband infrastructure are unnecessary in already-connected cities. Access to the latest technologies is, after all, one reason for cities’ economic success. The $6 billion for weatherizing homes will surely do more for rural America than for apartment dwellers. There is urban spending in the bill, but money spent rehabilitating public housing is not the transformative investment that will make cities more productive.

Infrastructure is the skeleton on which the economy hangs. In the 19th century, America built a great transportation network of rails and canals that enabled the wealth of the land to make its way east. America’s 19th-century cities — Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh — were nodes on that network that grew along with it.

In the 20th century, Americans built a highway system that decentralized urban areas. The resulting exodus from cities to suburbs reminds us that infrastructure can have far-reaching consequences.

A visionary infrastructure strategy cannot fit into a stimulus package. For stimulus, speed is vital. The Big Dig took 21 years. Working in cities is particularly slow because it takes time to tunnel, and because community opposition holds up urban mega-projects. A need for speed will always create an anti-urban bias.

America needs both a stimulus package and new infrastructure, but combining the two in one bill is a mistake. Congress should eliminate any pretense that the stimulus plan is addressing long-run infrastructure needs, and leave in only those infrastructure expenditures, like rehabilitating decaying roads and bridges, that require minimal planning, public approval, and time to implement.

A separate infrastructure bill would take cost-benefit analysis seriously, and direct spending to the projects with the highest returns. This means breaking the infrastructure spending status quo. As the Office of Management and Budget’s expectmore.gov Web site notes, highway infrastructure “funding is not based on need or performance and has been heavily earmarked.” To reduce boondoggle projects, localities, particularly wealthier ones, should provide a significant share of the funding. Requiring locales to pony up their own cash helps ensure that new projects are really valued.

The role of cities is vital. According to County Business Patterns, 56% of America’s wages are earned in the 22 mega-metropolitan areas with more than 2 million people each. A serious infrastructure bill would aid metropolitan areas, but ask for sacrifice in return for subsidy.

The cities that stand at the center of the economy need new infrastructure, but that can’t be built in two years. To ensure an infrastructure plan that does not shortchange metropolitan America, major infrastructure needs to come out of the stimulus package and get a bill of its own.-

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of Economics at Harvard University, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. This article first appeared in the Boston Globe.