I realized last year that even when they face a problem that is evidently about city services, city governments prefer to go for monuments that glorify their leadership. The most blatant example then was Cornell NYC Tech, the city-backed university whose campus construction alone is several times as expensive as the CUNY system per student. Since then I’ve tried to collect examples of power brokers proposing similar schemes, of which the worst is Larry Summers’ proposal to solve US inequality by spending public money on airport improvements. These are, to be frank, analogs of what American transit activists have to deal with routinely, with agencies preferring expensive iconic stations to ordinary capital and operating improvements in service.
The argument for Cornell NYC Tech is that New York needs tech entrepreneurs of the kind that Silicon Valley has, and that for that it needs its own Stanford. Instead of investing in STEM education across the CUNY system, or in its dedicated technological campus at the New York City College of Technology, it decided to start a private university from scratch, inviting other universities to bid on it. The city wanted Stanford to win the bid, but instead the winning bid was a joint effort by Cornell and the Technion, Israel’s technological university. The Technion was never run this way; it was started as a German-style technical university and is now a public university, funded and run on the same terms as the other Israeli public universities.
For Cornell NYC Tech, the city has lined up $2 billion in public and private funds for campus construction, expecting 2,000 students in 2037, which at 4% interest is $40,000 per student-year; annual capital and operating spending together, from all sources including tuition, is $16,000 per full-time equivalent student at the CUNY senior colleges and $11,000 at the CUNY community colleges (see PDF-page 65 of the budget request). This is the educational equivalent of airport connectors, which cities routinely spend several times per rider on as they would on ordinary subway extensions.
Summers’ proposal for airport improvements is in a way more frustrating, and more telling. He did not propose it as part of an independent infrastructure plan, but as a way to build public works to reduce US inequality, on the grounds that JFK is “an embarrassment as an entry point” and “the wealthiest, by flying privately, largely escape its depredations.” The proportion of people who fly privately is tiny; an income level at the bottom of the US top 1%, $400,000 per year, will buy you a lot of intercontinental business-class travel or some first-class travel, while affording a late-model Learjet requires an annual income of many tens of millions of dollars. Since poor people don’t fly as much as rich people, the users of JFK skew richer than the general city public.
My frustration comes from the fact that Summers is not trying to derail the conversation: he previously wrote about inequality as a problem and proposed standard center-left solutions, including raising taxes on capital gains and inheritances, supporting unionization, and (by implication) investment in public education. He clearly cares about the problem. He just seems to think that airport investment benefits the poor more than the rich. Most likely, this comes out of years of insider schmoozing with people so rich that they do own private jets, and generalizing to the considerably broader class of rich people.
In both cases, even on its stated merits, the proposal misses key facts about the situation. Silicon Valley began around Stanford, but once the initial tech cluster formed, it became independent of the university, so that even companies formed by people with no affiliation with Stanford or the Bay Area, such as Facebook, relocated to the area. New York is not going to grow its tech industry to the proportion of Silicon Valley’s by building an enterprise university any more than the Bay Area can become a world financial center by building affiliate universities for Columbia and NYU, from which many finance workers are recruited. As for JFK, like many of its users, when I arrive my first experience is the immigration line, a humiliating experience that involves fingerprinting and standing in line possibly for hours, depending on what terminal I use and what time I arrive. Public works will not solve that.
The problem with making even the merit-based argument is that public monuments are never truly merit-based projects. The decision-making process goes in the other direction: first the city elites (or, in case Summers’ proposal makes it into a national jobs bill, national elites) decide on something they want to see built, usually with the adjective world-class thrown in: a world-class university, a world-class airport, a world-class train station, a world-class office tower. The image of a world-class monument is more important than whether it works at its stated goal, such as improving education or transportation or fulfilling a need for class A office space.
Witness all the problems involving World Trade Center, which is being built entirely for prestige value, at enormous cost. The associated PATH station is $4 billion, almost as much as Second Avenue Subway, and about the same as 20 kilometers of subway in an average first-world city. One World Trade Center cost about $12,000 per square meter. I am not aware of any office tower in the world that is this expensive outside the WTC area and Hudson Yards; the tallest recent tower built in New York excluding 1 WTC, Bank of America Tower, cost about $5,500 per square meter in 2012 dollars, while the range I have seen for office towers in the 200+ meter range is about $2,500-6,000. Meanwhile, the WTC site struggles to find tenants: 1 WTC is almost half empty.
The sentiments after 9/11 ensured WTC would be rebuilt taller, regardless of actual demand in Lower Manhattan. Viewed through this lens, 1 WTC is not really about office space, but about proving a point about the power of US and New York to come back and not surrender to terrorism. This is why the transit spending went mainly to the PATH station and not to bringing the LIRR to Lower Manhattan, as proposed by the Regional Plan Association and studied officially in subsequent years: the LIRR project would’ve been about Lower Manhattan in general, without enhancing the specific prestige of WTC, while the billions poured into the WTC site and its PATH stations are all about the prestige.
Those other projects – various overrated transit schemes such as airport connectors, but also Cornell NYC Tech and Summers’ JFK proposals – are the same. They are not about what people living in, working in, or visiting the city need. They are not even about what they want. Whereas there was a citywide impulse to rebuild WTC taller after 9/11, there is no equivalent impulse to build an exclusive technical university, except among the power brokers. They are entirely about being able to say, “we have our own ___” and “I got that build.” It looks like development, but at best provides a fraction of the advertised value, and at worst provides nothing.
Whenever an urban project is proposed, the most important question to be asked is “what problem is this solving?”. Often, the problem is real, but there are much cheaper and less glamorous solutions. At other times, the project is a solution in search of a problem, and this is often detectable when proponents tout many unrelated benefits, almost as if the project can solve every major problem.
Compare this with solid public transit projects. Consider the lines I think North American cities should be focusing on, and the lines proposed in comments, especially as the Vermont subway in Los Angeles. In every single case, there are strong arguments for why the ridership of those lines would be high relative to the cost, and why existing subway lines (if any) and surface transit options are inadequate. The problem being solved is underserved neighborhoods with high transit demand, or in the case of the crosstown lines underserved origin-destination pairs in high demand. For other lines, not listed, there might be a separate argument regarding transit-oriented development: American cities tend to oversell TOD, as the problems with Hudson Yards show, but there do exist cases in which extending a subway line can allow dense development, or the construction of a new business district. But this involves figuring out where the development comes from – for example, the housing market may be very expensive, signaling high demand, or there may be projections of high future metropolitan population growth.
Usually, support for prestige projects to the exclusion of providing public services is the hallmark of moderates, along a broad arc from the center-left to the center-right. In the last few years, Republicans too far right to be called center-right have prioritized cutting taxes and spending and weakening the unions; signature projects conflict with their opposition to government spending. Conversely, urban leftist activists tend to oppose these prestige projects, on such grounds as gentrification, displacement, and private-sector involvement in public services.
The people in between those two ends are the ones most guilty of this kind of thinking. They are usually neo-liberal enough that they believe the government should champion market solutions and oppose industrial policy, and yet what they do is in many cases exactly industrial policy: Cornell NYC Tech is an attempt to curry favor with the technology industry. They are not so conservative as to believe government is always the problem, but the role they envision for government is to partner with the private sector to build public projects, which they tend to choose on grounds of what looks good rather than what provides the best public service. They know the buzzwords of urban politics well: for example, they’ll happily argue climate change to push a desired agenda that is usually only partly related to the problem, but lack the urgency of actual environmentalist activists and often also build roads and other dirty projects.
As with most bad things in politics, it’s a result of weak democratic institutions on the local level. American mayors tend to be elected dictators, and the opposition to them tends to be based on personality rather than ideology. In this non-ideological framework, the role of government is not to balance market and state solutions based on the voters’ preferences, but to aggrandize the leaders. Signature initiatives must appeal to the broad spectrum of non-ideological voters, so they can’t involve merely increasing spending on a chosen priority like education or transportation. Doing nothing is not an option – something has to be passed to remind people that the government still exists and has a purpose. The political incentives are against any incremental improvements that lead to tangible results, and for white elephants.