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Public Figures’ “Hubris”?

Capitalism’s Overbuilding Trend

by SETH SANDRONSKY

In “Political hubris plagues Bay Bridge, other big public projects,” Dan Walters, a political columnist for The Sacramento Bee, personalizes an underlying trend in the economy.

He paints figures such as Mr. Hardy Acree, retired Sacramento airport director, as bearers of outsized egos in quests to aggrandize themselves with public works projects. But the larger issue of overbuilding infrastructure, public and private, tells the tale of this trend in capitalism, past and present.

We turn to a particular case. Consider the local history of airport overbuilding in Sacramento, capital city of California. Passenger demand for air travel doubled at Sacramento International Airport in the early 1990s.

The reason for this increase was simple: Southwest Airlines, with its short-haul and low-fare business model, arrived in Sacramento. Air travelers cheered. Would this booming passenger growth in Sacramento continue?

Sacramento International’s Terminal A opened to handle the demand for Southwest’s trademark air service in 1998. During the next decade, Mr. Acree arrived in Sacramento from Houston, Texas. Soon after on his watch, Sacramento International’s Terminal B, opened in 1967, took center stage as a candidate for replacement.

Was this a demand-dependent move? In other words, was the past decade’s conditions of air travel and consumer supply and demand set to repeat itself?

The fact of the matter is no doubling of air travel that marked Southwest’s arrival in Sacramento was anywhere near on the horizon. Long story short, Terminal B, opened in 2011, is a brand new public infrastructure with visible under-use. Some might dub it an empty Taj Mahal.

As a tepid economic recovery continues for many with flat or falling wages while corporate profits boom, weak passenger demand in the capital city remains the rule. Walters describes the outcome of Sacramento’s terminal overbuilding.

“Since 2006, the airport’s passenger traffic has declined by nearly 20 percent,” he writes, “and paying for the terminal has become problematic.”

Such payment includes buyers and sellers. The former, airport businesses from air carriers to fliers and their meeters and greeters, are sad. To say they are throwing good money after bad captures it.

By contrast, the sellers of Terminal B’s expansion project are glad. They are the consultants, construction companies, designers and financiers. Some of their names are: Corgan Associates, Inc., Fentress Architects and Turner Construction

This brief look back is the context for Mr. Acree’s alleged “hubris” in the Terminal B project. Looking below Walters’ take on this individual’s character, we see an underlying clash of interests between buyers and sellers that drives the overbuilding of Sacramento’s airport.

The rocky and rough process of infrastructure expansion occurs across our economy, now and before. From the railroad construction boom and bust after the U.S. Civil War to the overbuilding of commercial and residential real estate before the crash of 2007-08 and Great Recession, expanding infrastructure for which inadequate demand exists recurs.

Capitalist ideology prefers to ignore its overbuilding trend. To do otherwise might de-legitimate a system that places profits before people. What horror!

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com