Recently, I made a rare airport run. Our niece from Chicago was visiting for the long weekend, and rather than send a car, we fought through both U.S. Open and Mets traffic to pick her up at LaGuardia Airport.
Despite the occasional spectacular views, it is on my list of worst U.S. airports, second only to John F. Kennedy International Airport. It’s as if we forgot what routine government spending was supposed to accomplish.
In general, American air travel is terribly annoying. Anytime someone we know comes thorough either airport, the conversation invariably touches on the sad state of U.S. infrastructure. Vice President Joe Biden compared LaGuardia to a third-world country. There are improvements coming, but it has been ever-so slow.
It’s a tired but true litany: crumbling bridges and roads; how little the U.S. spends on infrastructure compared with other industrialized nations; the list of states’ unmet infrastructure needs; the opportunity to make needed long-term repairs and improvements while financing costs are so cheap.
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Repeated calls for improvements – and recent stimulus spending – are starting to have an impact. Of the four major terminals at LaGuardia, two have seen big improvements. Delta Terminal D is a fairly new construction, and its interior was recently updated. Terminal C is still being renovated, and from what I have seen they’re doing a nice job.
Even on the dreaded Long Island Expressway, resurfacing has been accomplished from the city to Roslyn. It was started and completed quickly. For a brief moment, I was confused by the perfectly flat surface. The car glides along smoothly and silently, causing flashbacks to my last trip to Brussels.
Even conservative groups are starting to drop their irrational fear of everything government does to call for specific infrastructure projects. The American Enterprise Institute is pulling back from its dalliance with a fabricated fantasy world to focus on the real world.
Michael R. Strain, a resident scholar at the AEI, argues in a Washington Post op-ed for more infrastructure spending. Ignore the partisan debate within and instead focus on the repair and improvement portion. Strain advocates for more state and local control. And he argues that the focus should be on “identifying high-social-value projects — upgrading shipping ports and airports; repairing power grids, bridges, roads, and schools; working to shorten commute times; upgrading everything with 21st-century technology.”
This is a much more-moderate position than we have seen in the past from a conservative. There is only a small gap between what the liberal left and the reasonable right are both advocating for when it comes to infrastructure.
This is all a bit of a tease. What has been accomplished so far has only made me (and perhaps, the public) hungrier for more: Better roads and bridges, more modernized airport terminals, smarter traffic controls, a more reliable electrical grid.
Let’s hope that some common sense and common ground can get the revamping of America’s infrastructure going. It is long overdue.
Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg View columnist writing about finance, the economy and the business world.
© 2014, Bloomberg News