As public works languish, private dollars set the agenda in cities

Published: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Conceived as a freeway, the Route 34 Connector still promises to whisk motorists across New Haven as they exit Interstate 95. But in less than a mile, the three broad lanes abruptly end, forcing traffic onto side roads that skirt the unbuilt right-of-way.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. calls the aborted project a tragic example of public infrastructure gone awry. He has drawn up detailed plans to rip up the highway and parking lots and restore the neighborhood of homes and stores that once existed. But lacking money, the mayor's project only inches forward.

A few streets away, there is no such obstacle. On either side of New Haven's highway to nowhere, city streets throb with construction activity. A different kind of infrastructure spending - unrelated to roads or rapid transit, airports or levees - is under way.

Yale University is rebuilding itself - drawing on its huge, rapidly growing endowment and on multimillion-dollar gifts - to renovate 54 buildings and construct 16 new ones.

The message in this outburst of activity, here and in other places across America, is that private spending, supported handsomely by a growing number of very wealthy families, is gaining ground on traditional public investment. In New Haven, private investment now far surpasses public outlays..

Philanthropic spending adds mainly to the nation's stock of hospitals, libraries, museums, parks, university buildings, theaters and concert halls. Public infrastructure depends mostly on tax dollars. It is hugely expensive and the money available has shrunk as a share of the national economy.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that government should be spending $320 billion a year over the next five years just to bring up to par what already exists.

A few decades ago, after the Depression and World War II, the nation rapidly added new infrastructure and "maintenance was a less pressing issue,'' Casey Dinges, a society spokesman, said. But now 14 years are likely to pass before a widening of just one bridge in the highway system is completed. The traffic-congested bridge is to increase from three to six lanes in each direction.

Nearly six years into the expansion, the approaches are gradually being widened, but the bridge itself is untouched. The first pilings have yet to be sunk to support the additional lanes. The state transportation department, which is handling the $2 billion project, blames the slow flow of money, mainly from the federal government.

Yale's reconstruction proceeds at warp speed. The emphasis is on buildings devoted to science and medicine, to enhance Yale's stature in these fields. But every other department is a beneficiary, too, and all of the 12 residential colleges are being renovated. To keep this work going year-round, Yale built a four-story brick dorm, almost large enough to fill a city block, as temporary student housing.''

Propelled by the construction, Yale has become a big owner of commercial real estate in the surrounding downtown, engaging in a form of urban renewal not unlike what DeStefano wants for Route 34. But while the mayor has to extract government subsidies, Yale goes forward with its own money.

The shift from public money to private wealth in shaping the nation's cities is evident in national data. Government outlays on physical infrastructure have declined to 2.7 percent of the gross domestic product, from 3.6 percent in the 1960s. Philanthropic giving, in contrast, has jumped to nearly 2.5 percent of GDP, from 1.5 percent in 1995 and 2 percent in the '60s.

Yale now spends more than $400 million annually on its renaissance, nearly six times its outlays for construction and renovation in the mid-1990s. New Haven, by contrast, budgeted $137 million in the current fiscal year for all its capital projects, including those subsidized by state and federal governments.

Government investment nationwide has lagged for several reasons, say business leaders, academics and public officials. Tax cuts have helped to hold down overall government spending. So has the view that public investment is often inept and wasteful. And politics intrudes, with the widely criticized earmark process in Congress cited lately as a prime example of misdirected spending.

Perhaps most important, big businesses no longer put as much clout and attention behind public infrastructure investments. In an earlier era, corporations, many with deep roots in local communities, lobbied government for the railroads, highways and many other facilities they needed to operate successfully. And they served as a crucial fountain of local tax revenue.

But companies are more mobile today. And many of the urban manufacturers most dependent on public infrastructure have moved or gone out of business.

DeStefano's efforts to rebuild New Haven as a city of middle- and working-class neighborhoods represent a reversal of the large urban renewal projects that once dominated public infrastructure spending.

The Route 34 Connector would have linked I-95, south of the city, to the existing Route 34 in the north. Environmentalists helped to halt the project, objecting in particular to a section of the freeway that would have crossed wetlands. More recently, low-income families living near the right-of-way petitioned the mayor to return the land to streets, stores and homes.

There are other delays. The mayor would like Metro-North Railroad's New Haven line to offer a high-speed service to Manhattan.

The state government is gradually building up an infrastructure to make faster train service possible. Three hundred new rail cars will start arriving in 2010.

Given the limited pool of federal and state money, however, the project moves at a snail's pace. Under the best-case schedule, high-speed service will not arrive in New Haven for a decade.

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