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Public works worthy of investment

This is probably one of the more generally ignorant posts that I'm ever going to publish, but I hope that those who know more can comment and teach me.

I just read this New York Times article ("Obama Pledges Public Works on a Vast Scale", NYT, 12/6/08), in an attempt to keep up with what is going on in the US these days. I haven't really been reading any news online, and, as such, am terribly under-informed. The article basically talks about the major infrastructure spending that Obama is planning in order to create more jobs, in the model of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created many highways and bridges that are now on the verge of collapse.

My main reaction is that I would hope that infrastructure spending would focus on mass transit and alternative energy, both of which I think are incredibly important and too often under-funded in favor of building more roads and bridges.

Cities that have mass transit should have better mass transit, and cities that don't have mass transit should build it. And subways are way faster than buses, people. I don't know about light rails--I assume that they are faster than buses but slower than subways. How did cities like Washington, DC, finance the construction of their relatively new Metro subway system in the mid-1970s? Why aren't more cities building them or improving their existing ones? Los Angeles, anyone? Dallas? Houston? Phoenix? Not only would investing in mass transit create jobs, it would also make cities more pleasant to live in by reducing smog and congestion and lessen dependence on both cars and gasoline.

Alternative energy is also a no-brainer to me. There is a limited amount of gas; we need other ways of running all of our computers, home appliances, subways, buses, and cars. I would hope that investing in alernative energy would also involve investing in education, especially science education, on all levels.

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Well, Los Angeles actually does have a subway system. But in general, I would guess the problem with building subway systems in cities like Phoenix or LA is that they are too big and spread out. Whereas cities like New York are relatively dense, in LA the city was built and expanded with cars in mind. Building mass rail that covered enough of the city would probably be really expensive.
Alternative energy != educaction funding. Alt.E => lots of money given to mid-size and large energy companies and some various business integrators so that they can try to productize some of the interesting work which has been done in the last couple of decades.

As for subways/light rail, the numbers for most cities are highly unrealistic - most of the big transit systems other than NY operate at spectacular deficits, and rail is so cost-intensive relative to bus that it rarely actually makes sense. I say this as someone who is a big fan of rail... Coyote points out a lot of the egregious cases in the Western US.
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