This is a bit meta, but Matt Yglesias driving across the Throgs Neck Bridge and making large-scale inferences about the state of American infrastructure is less than a degree of separation from Tom Friedman’s inability to get good wireless internet coverage on the Acela train.
Beyond that, I think the key takeaway here is that it’s less about how old your infrastructure is and it’s more about whether your city is growing.
In Houston, for instance, we had old infrastructure – the six-lane Katy freeway – which was overcapacity. There were also geometric deficiencies that emerged out of that overcapacity – short weaving sections can be fine when the adjacent roadway is operating at LOS A, but as volumes rise and it becomes harder to merge you need a longer weave to avoid total breakdown.
Lucky for Houston, the western suburbs and the “Energy Corridor” were growing rapidly enough to justify building the Westpark Tollway. The Westpark was essentially a brand-new, four-lane, 70mph construction detour. Except that now that the Katy Freeway is done, it’s still there. And as a result there is a fair bit of spare capacity in the system for when it comes time to add managed lanes to 59 through Sharpstown.
In the case of New York, there was long talk of a Rye to Oyster Bay crossing, a fifteen mile causeway across Long Island Sound. We U.S. Americans are pretty damn good at that, whether you’re talking about the the Ponchartrain, the San Mateo, the Chesapeke Bridge-Tunnel, or the entirety of Tampa-St. Pete. If NY built a brand new bridge across the Sound, they could give it six months for trips to adjust and then shut down all or half of the Throgs Neck and do a full superstructure replacement. Combined with periodic microsurfacing that could give you 20-30 years of uninterrupted commutes, just infrequent nighttime closures.*
The problem arises because where Long Island was sort of a booming place in the 40’s and 50’s, at this point development has sort of ossified into a balkanized mess of little boroughs and hamlets that are all suspicious of growth. Coincident with that suspicion of new growth is opposition to the sort of new infrastructure that would support such new growth. Combine that with the usual NIMBYs and no one is seriously talking about a Rye-Oyster Bay crossing right now, which means you can’t use it as a reliever route while you redo the Throgs Neck.
And it’s not just road infrastructure.
One of the mind-blowing things about the East Coast is that you have historic and world-class transit infrastructure which is almost criminally underutilized. So where in the South and the West you have New Starts rail lines with upzoning or tax increment financing around stations, in the east you have quarter-acre lots backing up to electrified train stops. If you posit that there should be skyscrapers in Brooklyn, then maybe it’s time to bring brownstones to Little Neck.
In the transit realm, it would not be incredibly difficult to connect the Port Washington Branch of the LIRR to the express tracks of the Queens Blvd IND and have a single-seat ride to Midtown and the Financial District. With a Rye-Oyster Bay crossing you could conceivably link the inevitable train component with the Tappan Zee replacement and have a Voltron-esque circumferential that runs Suffern-White Plains-Hicksville-Jamaica-Atlantic Terminal.
But the difficulty is, again, it’s very difficult to find the political will to (i) fund these improvements and (ii) overcome NIMBY objections without a sufficiently-growing population to force your hand. Without the growth you don’t have the infrastructure improvements and without the infrastructure improvements you don’t have an increase in the standard of living.
*I’m a big fan of the “Arizona model” of closing entire highways for short periods of time as opposed to complex construction phasing which preserves the route but spreads the pain over a much longer area. In the NYC case you just disperse a shit ton of portable VMS’s that say THROGS NECK CLOSED USE WHITESTONE. And the Whitestone jams up, and in 48 hours it’s all over.