Thursday, March 25, 2010

Infrastructure Priorities

The other day I was listening to Frank Deford's comments on Morning Edition concerned primarily with the fall from grace of basketball in New York. This led to a reflection of Madison Square Garden having become a relic of history (my words, not Deford's) in an age when just about any city either had or was planning an even higher-tech arena. I forget his exact words, but they were something to the effect that such arenas had become a city's excuse for infrastructure. Regardless of the exact wording, the authorial intent really stuck with me.

I have had any number of experiences with infrastructure, both positive and negative. On the positive side I have been in any number of cities of different sizes that have been impressively accommodating to whatever my day-to-day activities happened to have been, whether they involved work or tourism. Unfortunately, very few of those cities are in the United States, which is why most of my infrastructure experiences have been negative! I had my first car when I became a graduate student in the Greater Boston Area, and there was no end of deterioration that I would encounter both within cities and along the arteries that connected them. Decades later I was living in Stamford, Connecticut, when the Mianus River Bridge on Interstate 95 collapsed. Now I live in a city with any number of socio-cultural advantages but where day-to-day life tends to bring frequent encounters with infrastructure failures, each of which, at best, is treated by trying to close the barn door after the horse has been stolen.

So, between Deford's curmudgeonly dismissal of the new sports arena as an excuse for infrastructure and a residence from which I can see infrastructure deterioration just by looking out my window, I came this morning to C. W. Nevius' column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Apparently negotiations are under way to bring the Golden State Warriors back to San Francisco; and the deal involves (you guessed it) building a new ("state-of the-art," as Nevius emphasized) sports arena in Mission Bay. Needless to say, this is one of those efforts that is going to involve considerable flows of money. Just to get into the right ballpark (which seems like the appropriate metaphor for both the location and the intention), consider that it will probably cost the Warriors around $60 million to get out of the current lease with the Oakland-Alameda County Sports Authority before it expires in 2027. Think of that as a baseline for which the financial planners will have to find the right multiplier (it had better not be an exponent!) to cover everything else. Meanwhile, we have a public transportation system that progressively gets worse and costs more. Whenever possible, I tend to go for the pedestrian option, which sometimes provides an entertainment benefit in observing traffic congestion. Some of that congestion is just a matter of too many cars; but there are also the incidents of utility-related breakdowns below the surface of the streets. Those are the occasions when things really come to a screaming (considering the way people react, that usage is literal rather than figurative) halt.

The point behind Deford's swipe has to do with how rapidly any city, regardless of its size, seems to embrace a state-of-the-art arena as an instrument of development. The embrace is so passionate that no one ever bothers to ask whether there might be better ways to spend the money that would also further development but in less noticeable ways. Besides, wasn't Mission Bay supposed to be the site of a major complex that would make San Francisco a world leader in biotechnology?

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