Connect and expand multiple infrastructures beyond municipal boundaries. 

Advocates

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Sustainable South Bronx

“It's positive that there is transparency and rapid action being taken. The negative thing is that it's around large gray infrastructure.... conventional, highly engineered, over-engineered, stuff that's often times incredibly expensive. Money is going toward those things because that's what's shovel-ready, that's what's consistent, and that's what's counted upon.”(Jaime Stein, Underdome Interview) 

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

ARRA: Total Spending on Transportation. data source: www.fhwa.dot.gov

A Vision for High Speed Rail in America. source: whitehouse.gov

Of the ARRA's total $819 billion budget, $48.1 billion are earmarked for transportation infrastructure.  In September 2010, the Obama Adminstration prompted Congress to adopt a new plan calling for an additional $50 billion to the federal transportation budget for roads, railways, and air infrastructure.  Such investments, the Obama Administration argues, are necessary to create jobs, stimulate the economy, and allow for the distribution of goods, services, and information necessary to keep the country competitive.   

"We can put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow. From the first railroads to the interstate highway system, our nation has always been built to compete. There's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products.... Tomorrow, I'll visit Tampa, Florida, where workers will soon break ground on a new high-speed railroad funded by the Recovery Act. There are projects like that all across this country that will create jobs and help our nation move goods, services, and information. ." President Barack Obama, State of the Union, Jan 2010

Among the questions facing the ARRA is one of scale. "The biggest question mark hovering over the future of high-speed rail in the United States is funding. The $8 billion allocated in the stimulus package [designated for high speed rail] is not nearly enough, particularly because it is spread across a range of projects around the country. California’s new system alone could cost $40 billion. State governments will shoulder a substantial share of the costs, and they are grappling with budget deficits." The New York Times

The ARRA is met with criticisms that it is doing both too much, and too little.  The Obama Administration's labor day proposals for a new transportation bill are unlikely to see any progress before the 2010 election.  But to others, stimulus actions are just laying the foundation for overhauls to planning and infrastructure necessary for job creation and strong energy policy. “A green stimulus is no replacement for comprehensive climate and energy policy.  Even the most aggressive short-term spending will have only a modest impact on US greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign sources of energy... Although green recovery efforts alone will not achieve broader climate and energy objectives, they can reduce the cost of comprehensive climate and energy policy.  The most successful programs will be those that can be implemented quickly and can complement, rather than seek to replace, future energy and climate-specific legislation.” Green Global Recovery?

The ARRA's reach has been greatly influenced by the need for quick response, and its dependency on shovel-ready projects. Government projects must go through a process of public review under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act.  A critic of this process, Vishaan Chakrabarti argues: "The rubber really hits the road on this when you talk to people in Washington about why there wasn't more infrastructure placed into the stimulus bill. And the answer is really simple: they tried. Actually, the White House did take a run at NEPA early on and was completely beat back by the environmental lobby in Congress who said, “You cannot. It is a sacred cow. You can't touch it.” And as soon as that happened, the White House then realized infrastructure is basically off the table, except for some roadway projects, because there’s no way you can argue it's stimulative. How's it going to be stimulative if it takes years to do?" Underdome Interview with Vishaan Chakrabarti

The emphasis on highway projects raises questions about the urban, rural, and suburban impact of the bill.  With $27.5 billion going to highway and bridge construction projects, the "most sweeping investment in our infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s" President Barack Obama on High Speed Rail is building on Eisenhower's extensive suburban and rural highway network.  And yet, while investments in urban infrastructure are significantly smaller, with $8.4 billion alloted for public transportation (for maintenance, new construction, and new equipment), these investments go hand in hand with housing assistance programs, community development grants, and the newly created Office of Urban Affairs led by former Bronx Borough President in New York and urban planner Adolfo Carrion.  

The Stimulus Bill also invested $9.3 in Amtrak and regional rail programs, shifting the relationship between urban and suburban territories by connecting urban regions spanning across city and state boundaries: "The high-speed rail corridors we've identified so far would connect areas like the cities of the Pacific Northwest; southern and central Florida; the Gulf Coast to the Southeast to our nation's capital; the breadth of Pennsylvania and New York to the cities of New England; and something close to my heart, a central hub network that draws the cities of our industrial heartland closer to Chicago and one another. Or California, where voters have already chosen to move forward with their own high-speed rail system, a system of new stations and 220 mile-per-hour trains that links big cities to inland towns; that alleviates crippling congestion on highways and at airports; and that makes travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles possible in two and a half hours." President Barack Obama on High Speed Rail

Sustainable South Bronx

Power infrastructures are changing.  Centralized power cycling capabilities are on the horizon, Con Ed is now in the business of transmission and distribution rather than production, and profits are being decoupled from power production.  Jaime Stein, Environmental Policy Analyst at SSBx explains these potentials:

“One of the, I think, the most exciting things is to organize energy users to use well-designed appliances. Imagine if twenty blocks in Brooklyn all had these air conditioners that could cycle on and off.  So whether or not people are in the house it can be comfortable if you run it for five minutes, take off for five minutes, run for five minutes, and shut off for five minutes. It would be controlled by the utilities, which is a little strange when they can cycle on and off all your appliances. They’re only allowed to do it with that intermittent cycling.  But your refrigerator, which is a huge consumer of energy, is on for five minutes and off for five minutes. On those really, really hot days when peak demand is out of control and they're burning the dirtiest power plants, it would be amazing if you could organize that data and control it in that way. You wouldn't have to run some of the dirtiest plants.  I like that concept.  
 
“Con Edison is ripe to do it in some ways, but is also not willing to do it in other ways. Right now all they have is basically transmission and distribution---they don’t do any generation---so, they want to keep that under lock and key.  And a lot of people, especially with all this energy efficiency and weatherization stuff going on, want baseline data. Organized groups want baseline data. They want to know, “if we do a block-by-block retrofit, what did the block start out at and what are we  now?”  They want simple before-and-after retrofit data, which Con Edison has. But now they're sitting on it, because so many people are asking them for the data that they're not sure how they want to charge for it and make it a business in the future, or what they can give away and what they can't give away. So it's a really interesting thing right now.
 
“But probably the most fascinating policy to come out in the past five years is that we have begun to decouple the dollar from the electron. What I mean is that now power producers and utility companies are getting money for energy efficiency. So it's no longer “the more electrons you sell, the more money you make.” That has gone away.  So what you find is that groups like Con Edison, NYSERDA, and the independent power producers are all fighting to get their energy efficiency programs approved and funded, but they're not really doing much. We haven't quite gotten to the point yet where we're actually saving electrons. We’re talking about saving electrons and getting funding for it. I think we’re moving toward actually saving electrons.” Jaime Stein, Underdome Interview
 

Vishaan Chakrabarti

Barack Obama & Joe Biden announce strategic plan for high speed rail. source: wikimedia

Regional high speed rail infrastructures, Chakrabarti argues, are critical to reducing dependency on gas guzzling automotive and airline travel. “You can go from New York to Chicago basically in three hours on [the proposed Chinese high speed passenger trains]...  That would, in turn, decimate regional air travel in this country. New York processes a third of the air traffic that goes through the nation. So that means if someone is flying from Albuquerque to Paris on their honeymoon, they're not sitting on a 777 at Kennedy behind a plane going to Philadelphia.” Underdome Interview

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Chakrabarti asserts, fails to adequately promote infrastructures needed to promote viable urban density and in effect promotes more of the status quo: sprawling, car-dependent suburbs.  “It is still confounding that the best we can get is $8 billion towards high-speed rail when we need at least $150 billion for all of the major corridors including California, Chicago-St. Paul, Char-Lanta, the Northeast, and yes, Florida. It is confounding when the Vice President states that the $1.25 billion investment in the Tampa-Orlando corridor will generate more than 23,000 jobs over four years, and that by extension one hundred times that investment nationwide might create 2,300,000 jobs. Now that would be stimulus.” Double Down on Density
 
At the Federal level, one has to wonder if there is an Asphalt Lobby, because if there is, they must be partying like it’s 2008. The stimulus bill passed earlier in the year feeds rather than fixes our ill-conceived land use patterns, resulting in new “infrastructure” that runs the risk of being little more than a grab bag of roadway construction. The bill’s criteria mandate that projects, in order to qualify for federal funding, must be “shovel ready,” must be compliant with the existing regulatory regime including NEPA, and must be complete in two years after commencement. The much touted $8 billion of stimulus funds for high speed rail is negligible in terms of what is needed. Common estimates for high speed rail in the northeast corridor run $25-$30 billion. This sounds high until one considers that one third of the nation’s air traffic goes through New York, sitting on tarmacs behind turboprops unconscionably flying from Newark to Philadelphia. Nationwide, the needs are probably around $150 billion. This also sounds high, until you consider the checks we write to bail out banks, fund failing auto makers, and care for the human ailments – spanning from asthma to obesity – that result from urban sprawl.” Profile: Vishaan Chakrabarti
 

Commentary

Amory Lovins

 “Centralized energy sources encourage industrial clustering and urbanization. While soft technologies give everyone the costs and benefits of the energy system he chooses, centralized systems allocate benefits to surburbanites and social costs to politically weaker rural agrarians.” The Road Not Taken

In his 1976 Foreign Poilcy article on 'hard' and 'soft' energy paths (See UNPLUG: Off-the-Grid Enclaves), Lovins lauds flexible and resilient energy sources such as wind and solar that can reflect a 'diverse' and 'pluralistic' suburban fabric.   But “This is not to say that all energy systems need be at domestic scale. For example, the medium scale of urban neighborhoods and rural villages offers fine prospects for solar collectors—especially for adding collectors to existing buildings of which some (perhaps with large flat roofs) can take excess collector area while others cannot take any. They could be joined via communal heat storage systems, saving on labor cost and on heat losses. The costly craftwork of remodeling existing systems—"backfitting" idiosyncratic houses with individual collectors—could thereby be greatly reduced.” The Road Not Taken

 

 

 

 

 

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