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Tunnel Vision

Behold: a piece of the first stretch of superhighway ever built in America. The stretch, complete with two unnervingly dark tunnels, lies abandoned in farm country not far from the Maryland state line. Highway planners in the late 1930s thought tunnels needed room for just one lane of traffic in each direction. By 1950, they realized the mistake. By 1968, this section of Pennsylvania Turnpike was chopped off and laid to rest. I rode my bicycle through the 6,750-foot, unlit tunnel this summer. I didn't stumble across any zombies, but they did not seem far away.

I suppose the experience could be interpreted as a folly, a celebration of bad planning. I chose to see the crumbling superhighway as a dystopian vision of America's future: if we fail to invest, will more of our infrastructure look like this?

This week the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the President's Council of Economic Advisors published an economic analysis of their boss' pledge to spend $50 billion on improvements to the country's roads, railroads, bridges and other infrastructure. The plan proposes a new National Infrastructure Bank to attract private financing. Whether the public expenditure is something the country can afford at a time of skyrocketing deficits will be up to our good friends in Congress to decide.

What caught my attention in the economic analysis was the mixture of traditional economic indicators and alternative measures. The standard arguments about boosting economic growth and productivity are all there. But the report also offers some new, fascinating ways to think about the impact of making transportation easier in America. For instance, there is a calculation of percentage of household income spent on transportation, with middle class families spending much more than the wealthiest. There is a calculation that bad roads cost the average motorist $400 a year. I have had single potholes in New Jersey cost me more.

The Treasury and the Council also delve into alternative ways of measuring impacts on society by examining the notion of "livability." What makes a community more livable? Remember, this is the Council of Economic Advisors and the U.S. Treasury asking that question. Among their assumptions: "livable" communities provide transportation choices, neighborhoods where walking is easy and encouraged, and create easy ways to get from homes to jobs to boost competitiveness. Livability. Unlike a lot of other more abstract measures of our society, livability sounds like it has a strong link to the way people might want to live their lives.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio
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A couple of years ago a German friend of mine was visiting New Jersey on a one-year job for her company and one of the first things she said that was remarkable about America is the terrible condition of our infrastructure. She had to take the train to New York City and she told me that she was actually afraid to step inside for fear that the train wouldn't be able to stay on the tracks!

While I assured her that the train was probably more safe than driving through the Holland Tunnel, it really opened my eyes to the sorry state of our roads, bridges, tunnels, and railway systems. It reflects a time when short-term fixes to infrastructure problems created systems that cost more and more to maintain as time goes on. Perhaps there should be more "Zombie tunnels" in America as some infrastructure projects, which were poorly designed to begin with, are replaced with newer, more cost-effective, and environmentally friendly systems.

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