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Matt Amorello: Three Issues

Monday, August 06, 2012


My first issue: The recent Senate campaign commercials highlighting the need for more spending on infrastructure to improve our local and national economy, regain our competitive advantage, and "get people to work". In the ad, the candidate talks about the money the Chinese are spending on roads, bridges, damns, etc. It mentions the significant portion of the Chinese GDP that is devoted to these endeavors. No argument on their spending levels but it must be pointed out that the Chinese are playing "catch-up".

China's Issues

Much of the road and rail network dates back to pre-Communist planning schemes. While the United States was constructing the greatest highway network in the history of the world during the 1950s and 60s, the Chinese were struggling with their "transition" to communism, leadership purges, cultural revolutions and generally just trying to maintain the lowest standard of living. The level of spending by the Chinese today is entirely driven by their lack of spending forty and fifty years ago.

I had the opportunity to travel to Beijing and make a presentation before planning and architecture students at Tsinghua University. After my presentation on the Central Artery/Tunnel project's parkland development, I received several questions regarding our process of "community involvement". It is a new concept developing in China, local community input on infrastructure projects. It is certainly a lot easier to spend 10% of your GDP on infrastructure when you have no opposition to whatever project the state deems necessary to construct.

As an aside to this vaunting spending of the Chinese, while in China I traveled to Shanghai. Its an incredible city with a visual appearance of something out of a sci-fi novel, futuristic looking buildings, crazy neon lightning at night, and a bizarre tunnel under the Pudding River, all pretty impressive to a first time visitor. But I have to note, that while meeting with some business leaders on the 20th floor of one these high raise office towers, there was the very distinct odor of sewage. For all the outside glam they still had not managed to effectively remove the "waste" from the twentieth floor lavatory to the sewerage system below the streets. I thought gravity could have taken care of this, but maybe it is far more complicated than that.

Infrastructure spending is critical to our success as a world economic power. It should be the highest priority of our state and national government, outside of public safety and national security. Spending on roads, bridges, bikeways, transit systems, airports, etc. should have a higher priority in our state spending program, unfortunately it does not.

Issue with State Budgets

Which brings up my second item, the recently passed state budget. The fiscal year 2013 budget is $32.5 billion, the operating budget for transportation is only (sorry I hate using "only" on hundreds of millions) $354 million. I know that there are capital budgets for transportation projects spread out over several years that pay for asphalt, concrete, buses, steel, etc. But if our needs are so great should not more of the budget be spent on these programs, to reduce congestion, improve bridge safety, expand commuter rail, convert more abandoned railroad right of ways to pedestrian and bike paths and improve air transportation? When I was first elected to the state senate in 1990, the first budget we passed in 1991 for the FY1992 was $12.9 billion.......so in just twenty years we have increased spending by nearly twenty billion dollars and the funny thing is our state population has not changed significantly if at all during those twenty years. Just a thought.

Which brings up the next event that occurred in the state of Georgia on Tuesday. Voters in Georgia went to the polls on Tuesday to vote for a 16% increase in the sales tax. The metro Atlanta area is tied with Boston and Dallas for 13th in the nation for congestion. The average driver in these cities spends 43 hours a year in traffic. The plan before them was a $7 billion transportation improvement plan, a plan to improve mass transit, relieve traffic congestion and provide more areas in and around urban areas for economic development. The voters voted it down overwhelming in the regions of the state where it would matter most. So clearly the appetite for tax increases is not in Georgia. I would venture to guess not in Massachusetts either.

So what is the solution to our infrastructure needs........I believe a fundamental restructuring in the state budgeting system. More of the $32.5 billion annual spending to needs to go into operations and maintenance of our systems. When Georgia voters who voted against the increase where asked why they did so, the general response was they did not trust the government to spend the money wisely. I do not see a gas tax hike passing any time soon, nor do I see a general increase in other revenue sources passing the legislature or by the public. So let's look at existing spending across the board make the difficult choices of reducing or even eliminating programs and moving money into the transportation sector of the budget.

Issues with Supporting Infrastructure

And now to my last item, we all got a good lesson when you let you infrastructure slide, or worse you don't have it to begin with. This week over 600 million people in northern India were left in the dark when the electric grid "collapsed", the worst event of its kind in history. There is lots of finger pointing going on in the national government of India as well as the various Indian states; the simple fact is the country of India has not invested enough energy plants and transmission lines to meet the needs of a twenty first century population. In India unlike the United States you cannot always flick a switch and have a light on or a computer running.

I spent some time there and was always frustrated by the brownouts and blackouts in the third largest city of Bangalore. India's problems not only include the lack of infrastructure for electrical distribution, it has horrible political corruption which affects all aspects of life there. A great example appeared in Thursday's edition of the Boston Globe on the black out. It seems the Chief Minister (US governor equivalent) of the state of Uttar Pradesh "had been pushing the state power utility to provide 24 hour service power supply (Yikes 24 hour service!) to four districts politically important to close allies" of the government, which helped cause the overload. Of course CM denies it had an impact.

Just some food for thought on our future here in this wonderful USA.
Enjoy your summer!

Oh one more thing...KUDOS to the City of Worcester, the Lt. Governor, the City Manager and others that may be involved in getting the CEO of JetBlue, David J. Barger to visit Worcester Airport at the end of the month. Please make sure he knows in addition to the navigation improvements the ORH needs, an ACCESS ROAD can be built. Cheers!


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