The Paving of America

WHEN a politician whispers the word infrastructure, the imagination sees rust-free bridges rising in the air and superhighways without potholes stretching as far as an eye can see. But then this clean, orderly noun gets tarnished by messy verbs like digging, dredging, and drilling.

In New York City, infrastructuring is about to hit the street on Columbus Avenue. For the 50 blocks north of 59th Street, water mains, sewer lines, street lights, sidewalks, and of course the streets themselves will be ripped up and replaced - two years of upheaval in prospect.

In Boston, infrastructure '90s-style takes the form of a combination Central Artery and Third Harbor Tunnel project, now estimated to cost $7.7 billion, three times the original estimate. Massachusetts taxpayers 100 miles away may see their taxes rise and wonder if they can hang on to the house they live in while they pay for a road, bridge, or tunnel that needs reworking. Others may justifiably ask: What kind of budget process yields this kind of price inflation?

One technique in New York City and elsewhere to cushion these infrastructure shocks is public relations. But will an ongoing neighborhood newsletter, or construction-camouflaging tarpaulins decorated by the art of school children, really answer such concerns?

Repairing potholes, repaving worn roadways, and replacing dangerous bridges are vital. Other infrastructural extravaganzas can be questionable, such as super-expensive projects that invite more cars to come into cities where parking already is a problem.

Maybe it's a good thing that infrastructuring proves to be such an uncomfortable process. A lot of national priorities need to be sorted out.

Super highways may be necessary, but so are super schools. Well-paved streets are one sign that a community cares for its residents, but so is reduced crime on those streets.

Infrastructure ought to stir up this kind of debate as well as dust. The voices of environmentalists and public transit advocates need to be heard along with the chatter of jackhammers.

Funding necessary repairs should not license the funding of all proposals, and such spending needs careful oversight. Every citizen should know what those know who are directly affected by the confusion, the din, and the taxes: Even a bulldozer needs good brakes.

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