If you’re wondering why American infrastructure stinks, don’t just look at Washington, D.C. Look at what’s going on right now in southeastern Connecticut.
Last month, as part of an effort to shave 45 minutes off the Acela commute between Boston and New York, the Federal Railroad Administration announced its support for a 30-mile bypass around existing train tracks along the Connecticut shore. Lots of people in Connecticut hate the idea, because the new high-speed railway would cut a new path through farms, conservation land, and historic areas — and around downtown New London, where local officials are eager to hold on to Amtrak service.
Governor Dannel Malloy and Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy swiftly issued a joint statement opposing the bypass, which they say has “inflamed” the affected communities. Blumenthal raised the issue last week in confirmation hearings for Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for transportation secretary.
Even the most useful project stands little chance when leaders of the state where most of the work would happen resolutely oppose it. The uproar in Connecticut highlights a much broader obstacle to improving America’s transportation systems. Beyond a dearth of public investment — which is also a problem — we can’t strike the political compromises, or absorb the inconveniences, necessary to make major projects happen.
When Trump bemoaned the sorry state of America’s airports, railways, bridges, and tunnels during his presidential campaign, transportation nerds perked up. “We’re becoming a third-world country, because of our infrastructure, our airports, our roads,” he said .
If only. For US travelers who’ve cruised smoothly above the crowded streets of Bangkok aboard the Skytrain, or hurtled toward Shanghai’s international airport in a magnetic-levitation train moving at 200-plus mph, it’s striking how developing countries manage to pull off state-of-the-art infrastructure while Americans keep plodding along on creaky old trains.
For Acela, Amtrak’s high-speed service, a bypass in Connecticut and southwestern Rhode Island would be a massive improvement. It would straighten out curves that slow trains down and avoid dangerous at-grade crossings that bedevil rail traffic along the current route. Improving mobility between Boston and New York, two of the country’s most productive metro areas, helps the overall economy. Faster, more convenient train travel would also mean less highway and airport congestion. Building rail infrastructure further inland will look ever more prescient as sea levels rise.
The catch is that small coastal towns in southeastern Connecticut just won’t get much immediate benefit. The railroad agency has tried to appease opponents. After people in historic Old Lyme blasted the idea of an elevated railway through their village, the government proposed a tunnel instead — a far pricier option that opponents don’t like either.
Disturbing sleepy rural communities for the benefit of big-city hotshots isn’t an easy sell in the current political environment.
Moreover, the very idea of asking some communities to sacrifice for the greater good has fallen into discredit, for reasons Bostonians understand well. In an Eisenhower-era vision of progress, the Southwest Expressway and Inner Belt projects would have torn through thickly settled areas of Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville for the benefit of commuters from farther suburbs. In the early 1970s, Governor Frank Sargent made the far-sighted decision to scuttle the highways and beef up the MBTA instead.
Today, however, infrastructure improvements of any sort are a slog. We lack the ability to distinguish existential threats to a community from modest inconveniences, which might be addressed or just ignored. The old-fashioned way around this obstacle would be to pour in lots of extra money, in the form of mitigation projects and other sweeteners, so that Connecticut towns feel they’re getting something for their trouble.
But that pushes the overall price tag up, as do other requirements — wetlands protections, prevailing-wage rules for construction workers — that, in theory, serve defensible policy goals. If anything, Trump, who wants federal projects to use American-made steel and iron, is poised to add to the number of hurdles that projects must clear. It’s easy to lament the sorry state of our transportation networks — while ignoring all the barriers we’ve put in the way of improving them.