Jonathan Cohn

Gee, If Only We Had an Excuse for Infrastructure Spending

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If you live in or around New York City, commuting to work hasn't been a lot of fun this week:

Thousands of commuters into New York City confronted another round of potentially heavy delays on the Long Island Rail Road on Tuesday morning, a day after an electrical short in a pair of cables sparked a fire in a control tower, causing an almost total shutdown of train traffic for part of the day. ...

Rail service was also temporarily suspended along the busy Northeast Corridor for the second time in less than two weeks because of an Amtrak power problem. New Jersey Transit officials said the problem was affecting Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast Line and Midtown Direct trains. ...

The electrical travel chaos on Monday offered a frustrating reminder of the fragility of a rail network still dependent on antiquated equipment.

Embedded along the railroad tracks by Jamaica Station, and soaked by rain from the night before, two or more cables shorted out around 11 a.m., the authorities said, sending a pulse of electricity into a nearby train control tower and setting fire to the century-old equipment inside.

It seems improbable that a piece of ancient machinery, a contraption of levers and pulleys designed in 1913, would be critical to the successful operation of one of the nation’s largest commuter railroads.

But the machinery, which remained on fire for about an hour, controls the 155 track switches at a crucial choke point: Jamaica Station, which 10 of the railroad’s 11 branches must travel through to get in and out of New York City. ...

The fire was a gloomy reminder to New Yorkers that the region’s mass transit network, although it serves more passengers than any system in the nation, still functions very much as it did decades ago. In 2005, a blaze in an underground relay room destroyed ancient equipment, snarling two of the city’s largest subway lines. A 2004 fire in a tunnel leading to Penn Station halted commuter train service for hours.

“We are an older infrastructure; we know that we need infrastructure renewal,” said Helena E. Williams, the president of the Long Island Rail Road, at a news conference. “Commuter rail is facing that throughout the United States.”

Systemic commuting delays in large, economically vital cities a drag on productivity, not to mention a real inconvenience for the residents. And they won't go away without better infrastructure, the kind that only government can build.

We've spent a lot of time arguing whether more government spending would help boost the economy in the short-term. The chaos in New York is a reminder that it would almost certainly boost the economy in the long-term, while improving our quality of life.

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