NIMBYism isn't just about housing
By Scott Sumner
There’s been a lot of recent discussion of how zoning restrictions lead to higher housing prices. It’s less often noted that NIMBYism also helps to explain the mediocre quality of American infrastructure. For instance, NIMBYism explains why there is no high-speed rail service between Boston and Washington DC.
I recently tried to book a flight from Orange County to Austin, and could not find any non-stop flights on the days I will be traveling. (Frontier has three flights a week; the other airlines have none.) I did some investigation and found that Southwest previously offered nonstop flights, but had to stop in 2017 because they could not get enough landing slots from the airport. The Orange County Airport is capped at 10.8 million passengers a year, and they have reached maximum capacity.
I did some more investigation and found that Orange County intended to build a big modern airport in Irvine, but local opposition killed the proposal. The proposed airport was going to take over a huge military facility that already had plenty of space, and lots of big runways going both east-west and north-south. It would have been absolutely ideal for Orange County residents. This map shows the current small Orange County airport (called John Wayne) on the left, and on the right side you can see the large old military base. In the satellite photo, some of the runways have already been obliterated. Instead of creating what President Trump would call a “big beautiful airport”, they are going to create a huge new park, which is not needed in an area that already has plenty of park facilities.
As a result, we are stuck with lousy infrastructure. We either have to drive all the way up to LA or take flights that change planes in Dallas. Orange County is the 6th most populous county in America, and is full of both high paid people and corporate business offices, which means there is a huge demand for air travel. We should have a decent airport.
Don’t get me wrong; there are much bigger problems in the world that pampered Orange County residents like me being inconvenienced. My point is that all of this discussion of spending more federal tax dollars on infrastructure misses the point. We already spend plenty of money. Either we can’t get permission to build (as on the East Coast or in Irvine), or we refuse to use Chinese construction firms and hence spend many times more than necessary (as with the so-called “high speed rail” being built between LA and San Francisco at a cost of $100 billion.)
BTW, Singapore became “great” by building infrastructure with inexpensive foreign construction workers. Trump has a choice; he can make America great or he can adopt nationalistic economic policies. He cannot do both.
PS. Yes, the airport I wanted would have meant a bit more noise over my house—I can live with that.