Opinion: Time for the U.S. to stop being left behind on infrastructure

A road closed sign blocks a roadway under construction along what will become Interstate 70 north of downtown Denver.

A road closed sign blocks a roadway under construction along what will become Interstate 70 north of downtown Denver.

Associated Press

As a kid who grew up in the 80s, I remember being mesmerized by “Star Wars,” and mom letting me walk back to the car in the theater parking lot in Orange mimicking a bunch of characters from Darth Vader and Han Solo to C-3PO. What a cool world awaited us in the future, but even at age 7, I knew I would probably never see it.

And then I did.

Fast forward to the 21st century and Hong Kong, my new home after I was offered a job there. Sure, Hong Kong was China, and I didn’t speak a word of the languages, but as a former British colony like Connecticut once was, almost everyone spoke English there, and the HK dollar, not yuan was used. So living there as a single guy in my 30s was easy, adventurous and fun. But what I won’t ever forget was landing there for the first time, and, having never stepped foot in Asia, stepping off the plane and feeling like I was a character from “Back to the Future.” But this was China, the country that my Nana told me if I kept digging too deeply in the vegetable garden would fall straight through a hole into.

In short, Hong Kong was up to speed and then some. Sidewalks literally moved, because they were actually conveyor belts, and some people chose to stand stationary on them, or walk and thereby double their speed. A small island with real estate at a premium, my office was on the 72nd floor and my apartment on the 23rd. The city was pretty vertical and elevators were aggressive and fast, making our American ones look like the elevator from the hotel Holden Caulfield stayed at in “The Catcher in Rye,” with the old elevator doorman closing the metal gate, not there isn’t some romance lost there.

When I first moved to Hong Kong, I was advised to take the MTR to work (the subway), which was not only super clean and fast, but actually on time. Then, occasionally I would take one of many fast electric and carbon-neutral buses. There was the tram, an old fashioned electric cable-car (trolley) that ran the length of the island, which became my favorite mode of transportation. At the equivalent of one U.S. dollar for an unlimited ride, I figured I could alternate between the future of underground high-speed bullet trains and the charming past of the open-air trolley. And ferries dotted the harbor, running every hour much like the Port Jefferson one does every few, which I would take on especially balmy, sunny days.

And speaking of the water, I must tell you about Octopus, as in my Octopus card. It was simply a thin piece of plastic I kept in my wallet, much like a credit card, except this one you need not remove, or have to sign with a nasty communal stylus. Most people kept it on their person, so most transactions were a breeze — I just tapped my wallet at the counters or doors, or else you could pay with your phone, too. This was all contactless, which I suspect had the advantage in a city scarred after SARS of not only convenience, but cleanliness (and perhaps surveillance, too). After COVID hit here in New England, I see more and more shop owners turn their nose up at cash, since, well, the same Nana who advised me not to dig too deeply in the garden almost beat me with a wooden spoon the once time I almost put my first $50 bill in my mouth I received for Holy Communion. Cash carried germs — everyone had touched it, I might as well go kiss the school toilet, she said.

I know the last part about paying electronically gives me the jitters — I don’t really want some algorithm (public or private) knowing what I buy, from whom, when and where. And of course we know they already do. But the point is there was so much modernity, so much convenience, so much intelligence in Hong Kong. The USA was supposed to be No. 1 (or at least I thought) but Hong Kong was like “Star Wars” while the U.S. was more like “Little House on the Prairie.”

I am not talking governments or ideologies here but technologies and infrastructure. But any substantial “infrastructure” proposal always reminds me of Lucy from Peanuts and the football — pulling any real kick start away last minute.

After President Trump was elected, it was no-brainer to me that he would immediately pass an infrastructure bill, which would be a win-win for both parties. It would reinvigorate our dying cities and rural towns and provide millions of jobs, the kind of jobs my grandfather explained dug us out of the Great Depression. Grandpa would hitchhike from Stratford to Danbury in Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps to build roads and dams. He had a job, and his family had money. He was 16. But the only thing ever built was a wall, and by no means a great one, which reminded me again of China. But this wasn’t the seventh century, it was the 21st.

Before moving to Hong Kong, I was a dean at a local school, and one policy I had to implement was a “no-transfer first semester policy” because it was customary for the international students to arrive from Japan, China, Korea, India or the Middle East and find most things in the state literally broken, and low tech, even as Fairfield County on Craigslist is listed under the NYC metro-region - supposedly the greatest and hippest city in the world. The New York airports were their first warning — slow, architecturally dated, poorly designed and understaffed. Then the transportation that either didn’t work, or was sporadic; train billboards often displayed empty information like “Don’t Text and Drive!” when maybe air quality alerts, or a live weather data map, or a GPS location of the actual train would be more informative. With live radar images, one can see exactly the moment the rain will start to fall, and time accordingly. And as a romantic old-school guy I might prefer to look at and trust the clouds instead, but the option would be nice.

I know there will be readers who will react by telling me that if I liked Hong Kong so much I could go and live there, and I’ve already been there and done it, and decided in the end to come home: nothing beats clear blue skies, four distinct seasons, New Haven pizza and the Yankees. But while we debate what statues to take down, much of the world is deciding what new tech to erect.

I want to live in a country that is ahead of the game, not behind it, and where a re-evaluation of our past, much of it bright, some of it shady, is accompanied by not only a new awakening of conscience and ethics, but also a redesigning of how we move about, interact with nature and one another. The cost of an infrastructure bill may be high, but the costs of whiffing at this critical moment are infinitely higher. This no time to pass the buck — it’s (past) time to pass a bill.

Ryan A. Knox, of New Haven is a professor of political science at the University of Bridgeport.