Infrastructuring a Solution

Published Friday, Nov. 14, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Local leaders looking for a mandate have hit the streets. Eugene’s mayoral race was a squeaker. A county commissioner’s race was a squeakier squeaker. Was there a big winner last week? Yes, but it wasn’t any candidate — it was infrastructure.

Voters resoundingly endorsed a plan to borrow money to improve Eugene’s streets. “It may take us 20 years to catch up on road maintenance, but the public’s trust was expressed in that vote,” City Manager Jon Ruiz told me. “Now all we have to do is earn it.” After decades of free market experiments, people everywhere seem ready for governments to solve problems.

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski has introduced a $3.1 billion investment plan for transportation projects across the state. Democrats now have a three-fifths majority in Salem, so they can deliver on such a plan.

Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C. are shopping another round of stimulus spending. This time the favored method is using government spending on infrastructure to create jobs. Economist Ed Whitelaw told a City Club audience last week that government must quickly invest in projects that provide a benefit to us, the American people. Oregon Congressman Peter Defazio voted against last month’s $700 billion because it didn’t promise those direct benefits for Americans.

Even China has weighed in, announcing this week that it will spend over half a trillion dollars on infrastructure improvements. Everybody everywhere is jumping on the same bandwagon.

I distrust bandwagons. I like parades as much as the next person, but let me sprinkle a little Oregonian rain on this one. This bandwagon should be reconfigured into a band-width wagon.

We’re confident that infrastructure improvements will help the economy because we’ve been down this proverbial road before. But current our situation doesn’t resemble 1956 so much as 1935.

In 1956, the automobile held great promise to improve Americans’ mobility and productivity, if only we could clear the way for it. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 did that. Materials and people now move around easily. But infrastructure doesn’t always move people around. Sometimes it helps people stay where they are.

Investing in roads has paid handsome dividends since 1956, but nobody would disagree that such investments have gotten more complicated in recent years, as available land and air quality has diminished. There’s plenty of talk about smart transportation investments, promising to fund mass transit and zero-emission technologies. But the focus remains on roads, ignoring what my neighbor John calls “the post-petroleum economy.” He moved here from California’s Silicon Valley a couple years ago, but kept his job with a software company. He telecommutes, and seldom uses his car.

He is preparing for a future that doesn’t repeat the past. Smart infrastructure investment can hasten that future.

In 1935, 90 percent of rural America lit their homes with gas lamps, milked their cows by hand, and washed their clothes with washboards and buckets. By 1953, 90 percent of U.S. farms, thanks to the government’s Rural Electrification Administration, had the benefit of the latest emerging technology — electricity.

What is the emerging technology in 2008 that promises to add value and increase productivity? The Internet.

Internet entrepreneur Fred Ziari built the world’s largest “wi-fi cloud” over Hermiston, Oregon in 2005 for $5 million. It provides free Internet access to everyone, covering almost 1000 square miles. If the investment scales evenly, the same technology could deliver every Oregonian free and fast Internet access for about half a billion dollars.

If every Oregonian had free and fast Internet access, how often would they not need to go someplace else? If people drove less, roads would need less repairing.

Nigeria announced two weeks ago that it will build a wireless Internet system to cover its entire nation, an area three times larger than Oregon and about a tenth the size of the United States. We might recapture our civic pride best by swallowing it. Let’s follow Hermiston and Nigeria.

We’re all in the mood to build something; that much this election made clear. But let’s not just rebuild our last infrastructure again. Let’s begin building the next.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) uses his laptop and cell phone to work from wherever he happens to be. For eight years, he drove an all-electric car that was made in Eugene. He has studied transportation, economic development and land use issues locally for the past ten years. He blogs.