Regular readers here will know of my passion for this topic. This piece is based on interviews I did several years ago about the metropolitan area sewer system, but the article is really focused on the deterioration of the Boston transit system. Some of the folks I interviewed are no longer around, so this will be a throw-back for some Bostonians.
Here's a teaser, the lede from the article:
Infrastructure degrades slowly, indeed imperceptibly. The bus arrives a little less frequently; the subway breaks down a bit more often; the water pipe loses water through leakage; the sewer system adds a bit more pollution to the environment. For the most part, there is no political consequence from a deteriorating infrastructure.
In contrast, investment in infrastructure occurs episodically, with direct political consequences. It often requires a vote to increase taxes or fees, which go into effect immediately. Yet the investments that result from that vote take years to be felt in improved services or facilities. Those who vote “yes” get no credit. Indeed, they are likely to be assigned blame and criticized for raising taxes or fees by a public that does not trust they are necessary.
Kevin Harrington, the former president of the Massachusetts Senate, once gave a detailed description of the mechanics of this dynamic on Beacon Hill. Harrington was elected in 1959, when the Metropolitan District Commission was in charge of the region’s water and sewer system. At the time, all MDC expenditures approved by the Legislature would be assigned to the cities and towns in the district and collected from the public through property taxes. Harrington related how engineers from the agency would come before the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee seeking money because the plants taking care of sewage were obsolete.
“And then politics raised its ugly head,” Harrington said when I sat down with him more than a decade ago to try to make sense of how the political establishment deals with infrastructure projects. “It’s so simple, so plain, and so sad—the representatives and senators that were inside of the MDC district would come to those of us who were not in the district, and they would say, ‘Please don’t vote for this money. Our local mayors, our city councilors, and alderman and selectman don’t want their property taxes to go up.’ So I would say in my stupidity, ‘Of course, I’ll vote with you.’”The metropolitan area transit system is the current poster child for this built-in dynamic that leads us to put off infrastructure investments....