Illustration by Michael DeForge
Illustration by Michael DeForge

Opponents of New York’s plan to reopen a waste-transfer plant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan were predictably disappointed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the plant a green light last month.

But the regulatory authority of the Army Corps should be limited to assessing threats to navigation, not neighborhood concerns. The Army Corps’ control over navigable waterways, which dates back to 1899, should remind us just how ill-suited the U.S. transportation and infrastructure system is for the needs of the 21st century. We need a system where the Army Corps is confined to providing engineering expertise and transportation funding, in the same way that federal school spending is tied to performance.

As a Bloomberg View columnist, I’m not going to pick a fight with a plan by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to install a waste-transfer plant on New York’s East River. The idea of moving more trash by barge, and less by truck, seems sensible in a city with scant street space. And the proposal will end the injustice whereby all waste-transfer plants are located near poorer communities outside Manhattan.

Most issues involving the plant, however, are best handled by New York’s own political system. No federal agency, and certainly not the Army Corps of Engineers, has the local knowledge needed to assess the impact of a waste-transfer station on the nearby neighborhood. The City Council includes a local representative who can convey residents’ concerns within a larger debate over the city’s needs. If the process is messed up, then voters can oust their elected officials.

Controlling Navigation

The federal government is involved in U.S. river-related projects for two important reasons: navigation and the environment. Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 made it illegal to build “any wharf, pier, dolphin, boom, weir, breakwater, bulkhead, jetty, or other structures” in ports, canals, navigable rivers or “other water of the United States … except on plans recommended by the Chief of Engineers and authorized by the Secretary of War.”

By 1899, the Army Engineers were the natural guardians of U.S. waterways because the agency, which is now part of the Defense Department, had by then almost a century of engagement in water-related projects, such as the fortifications of New York Harbor before 1812 and the dredging of the Mississippi as far back as 1824.

The Corps’ track record was imperfect, but the U.S. government had no comparable engineering talent.

The 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act is occasionally called the first American environmental regulation. It forbids the “discharge” of “refuse matter of any kind” into “any navigable waters of the United States,” unless the secretary of war and his engineers deem that such waste will not harm navigation. Although the courts typically gave the Corps wide latitude to engage in environmental regulation, the agency’s engineers often put navigation ahead of aquatic ecosystems. Environmentalists and the Corps battled over Currituck Sound in North Carolina in the 1920s, when the Corps built a canal that caused a flow of salt water into the sound, disrupting thousands of migratory birds.

The agency adapted itself to environmental demands, and its control over waterways continued after the Clean Water Act, first passed in 1972. Although the Environmental Protection Agency sets environmental guidelines, the Corps of Engineers is still responsible for issuing water-related permits, such as the right to reopen a waste-transfer plant on the East River.

Education Model

It may seem odd and archaic that the Army Corps controls the East River, but the fault lies not in the agency but in our outdated federal approach to transportation and infrastructure. The U.S. has a disjointed system of regulation, by disparate entities such as the Corps and the EPA, and spending, where tax dollars are simply funneled to lower levels of government that can then spend, more or less, as they will.

A better model would use spending and regulation together to provide the right incentives for smart infrastructure. An incentive-based model, which could be adapted for transportation, is exemplified by federal education policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. In these programs, federal payments are linked to measurement of key “deliverables,” typically test scores, and money is used to promote better state and local systems. These U.S. education initiatives may need amending -- test scores are an imperfect gauge of educational success -- but they have established that the federal government can improve local government by measuring and rewarding success.

Federal transportation policy today does little to encourage smart infrastructure spending. Adam Smith famously and correctly argued that when roads, bridges, canals and the like are “made and supported by the commerce which is carried on by means of them, they can be made only where that commerce requires them, and consequently where it is proper to make them.” But federal funding of state projects makes it easy to build infrastructure that is required neither by commerce nor by local voters.

This summer’s deeply flawed highway bill includes $18.8 billion of general tax revenue to supplement the Highway Trust Fund, and further separates the funding of infrastructure from its users, practically inviting foolish projects, such as bridges to nowhere and Detroit’s infamous People Mover monorail.

The most notable failure of the Army Corps in recent years was the flood system that crumbled in the face of Hurricane Katrina. The delegation of responsibility to a remote authority seems sure to create future disasters.

A better transportation policy would start with objectives, not spending targets. The goal is to ensure that people and goods can move swiftly and safely, and to limit environmental costs. Regulatory bodies would be part of the system, not something apart, and their assessments should be used to direct federal funds.

Final Decisions

The Transportation Department could then use these measures to allocate funding, so that federal transport aid would pay for performance. States that didn’t use their funds wisely and left bridges in disrepair would face substantial aid cuts. More pressure to improve highway performance should push states to adopt smart policies, such as time-specific congestion charges, that get the most out of existing infrastructure. I would happily call the program “No Trucker Left Behind,” except that we should expect trucking companies to pay the full cost of the infrastructure they use.

The expertise of the Army Corps would fit into this program. The engineers can continue to assess threats to navigable waterways, and more extensively evaluate the safety and engineering aspects of roads and bridges. They already monitor the maintenance of U.S. bridges.

But neither the Army Corps nor the EPA is well suited to make final decisions. A solid bridge does not have to be a big bridge. The final evaluation of individual projects and overall state performance should go to an entity with a broader range of skills, and more ability to weigh economic, environmental and engineering considerations. Let the EPA evaluate the environmental consequences of infrastructure, but then ensure that final decision-making power sits with a body that will consider more than just the environment.

In the case of federal approval for projects that might impinge on transport, such as the East River waste-transfer plant, local governments could have two options. One is a complete evaluation before a larger board that weighs federally relevant costs and benefits. The second option is a short-form process, where the Army Corps certifies that no damage will be done to the navigability of the waterways and the EPA certifies that there is no significant environmental damage to the river itself. The federal government should create funding to make sure that states cooperate with one other and look after each other’s interests.

Neither process should include a federal outlet for community complaints about traffic, noise or pollution. These concerns are real, but they aren’t the business of the U.S. government, and the Army Corps of Engineers shouldn’t provide an extra opportunity to litigate issues that sit at the center of local politics.

(Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Triumph of the City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Edward Glaeser at eglaeser@harvard.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.