Peanut Butter and Jam

In this month’s issue of the “Atlantic”, Bruce Katz and Robert Puentes collaborated on an article dealing with this country’s aging and congested road, rail and air networks. These outmoded systems are threatening our economic health, they proposed, and they produced some eye-opening numbers to get the reader’s attention.

“Transportation spending is spread around the United States like peanut butter,” they began, “and while it’s spread pretty thick – nearly $ 50 billion last year in federal dollars for surface transportation alone – the places that are most critical to the country’s economic competitiveness don’t get what they need.

“The nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions generate 75 percent of its economic output. They also handle 75 percent of its foreign sea cargo, 79 percent of its air cargo, and 92 percent of its air-passenger traffic. Yet of the 6,373 earmarked projects that dominate the current federal transportation law, only half are targeted at these metro areas.”

Their article provided some numbers that would seem to support their position.

• “The twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles,” they pointed out, “handle 43 percent of the container cargo entering the United States, clogging the surrounding road and rails.” The amount of money lost in 2005 due to congested roads in that metro area amounted to $ 9.3 billion, they added.
• “A third of the nation’s rail and truck cargo goes to, from, or through Chicago,” they stated, but the amount of money lost in 2005 due to congestion in that metro area was $ 4.0 billion.
• From the airport in Shanghai, they reminded their readers, one can board a maglev (magnetic levitation) train to downtown in about eight minutes at a speed of 300 miles per hour. Those arriving at JFK, on the other hand, are taken by train to Queens, and after walking over a bridge and transferring to the antiquated Long Island Rail Road, downtown Manhattan is still another 35 minutes away. New York lost $ 7.4 billion in 2005 due to congestion.
• Smaller metro regions around the country are backed up as well. Congestion in 2005 cost Dallas-Fort Worth $ 2.7 billion; Miami $ 2.7 billion; Atlanta $ 2.6 billion; San Francisco $ 2.4 billion; Washington, D.C. $ 2.3 billion; Houston $ 2.2 billion; Detroit $ 2.2 billion.

The writers of this article are criticizing the fact that those metro areas “that are most critical to the country’s economic competitiveness don’t get what they need”. A recent academic study, however, shows that investments in transportation generated about 20 percent in the ‘70s, dropped to 5 percent in the ‘80s, and to about 1 percent in the ‘90s.

Logically, then, is it fair to require taxpayers to direct more funding to those localities mentioned above? Those metro areas are proven losers simply because too much of our “economic competitiveness” – too much of our traffic – too much of our congestion – is concentrated in those communities. [Shouldn’t we be spreading the risk – rather than the “peanut butter”.]