Over the past two centuries, federal, state, and municipal governments across the U.S. have launched wave after wave of infrastructure projects.
They built canals to move freight in the 1830s and 1840s. Governments subsidized railroads in the mid- and late 19th century. They created local sewage and water systems in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then dams and irrigation systems through much of the 20th century. During World War II, massive amounts of public money were spent building and expanding ports, factories, airfields, and shipyards. And after the war, highway construction—long a state and local project—became a federal endeavor.
Many of these projects did not end well. The problem wasn’t that the country didn’t need infrastructure—it did. And the troubles weren’t the result of technical failures: By and large, Americans successfully built what they intended, and much of what they built still stands.
The real problems arose before anyone lifted a shovel of earth or raised a hammer. These problems stem from how hard it is to think ahead, and they are easy to ignore in the face of excitement about new spending, new construction, and increased employment.
The questions about which massive structures to build, and where, are actually very hard to answer. Infrastructure is always about the future: It takes years to construct, and lasts for years beyond that.
The money invested in roads, railroads, airports and dams cannot be repurposed, and what is built requires large future expenditures for upkeep. If the infrastructure isn’t needed, then we throw good money after bad.