Thursday, June 30, 2011

Boring Bridges and Roads

By Alan Caruba

In November 2010, Business Week, noting the $72 billion set aside in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the “stimulus”, cited a 2009 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers on the state of the nation’s infrastructure of roads and bridges, solid waste and water treatment processing facilities, the aviation system, and energy needs.

Known as the ASCE “report card” and issued every four years, the Society gave America a grade of D regarding the nation’s crumbling and outdating infrastructure. The estimated cost of what needs to be spent through 2014 was estimated to be $2.2 trillion.

The stimulus allocation of $72 billion falls considerably short, but any money directed to infrastructure maintenance and upgrading is money well spent. However, as President Obama discovered, “not all shovel ready projects were shovel ready.” Any civil engineer or town mayor could have told him that.

Essentially, today’s politicians find infrastructure projects boring. They lack the razzle-dazzle of programs devoted to “renewable energy”, high speed trains, and countless electric cars speeding down the potholed highways of the future.

It took a very long time to create the network of bridges, roads, air and seaports, and other essential elements of the infrastructure and, thanks to time, wear and tear, and general indifference they are all deteriorating at an increasing rate.

This means your children and grandchildren face the possibility of living in a Third World nation of disasters such as the Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007 and the New Orleans’ levee failures when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

The national highway system we love was built in the 1950s. “More than 26% of U.S. bridges are either structurally deficient or obsolete,” says the ASCE. “The average bridge is now 43 years old.” Auto traffic between 1980 and 2005 increased 94% and truck traffic doubled!

Most Americans are blissfully unaware or just plain ignorant about the role of infrastructure and, worse, at a time of financial crisis the prospect of spending millions or trillions on it is slim. There is, of course, a price to neglecting such things. It goes up every year repair and replacement is put off.

Fortunately, there are people sufficiently concerned about this to come up with a plan to address it in a fiscally prudent, but long term way. There’s a website, representing “a campaign to implement life-cycle budgeting at the federal, state, and local levels.” It was initiated on June 22.

The site offers a white paper titled “Delivering Taxpayer Value: Three Tools That Can Help Ensure a More Efficient Cost-Effective Infrastructure” written by John W. Fischer, a transportation consultant who spent more than three decades with the Congressional Research Service.

The white paper should be read by the staffs of every Senator and Representative in Congress. White House staff should read it, too. Then it needs to be read by the staffs of every state governor and, of course, all transportation officials.

Boring as this may seem, when the recommendations cited in the report were implemented in Louisiana, it saved an estimated 25% on the costs of materials purchased by its department of transportation for road projects. In Indiana, an estimated $10.3 million was saved and, in Missouri, over a three-year period, paving projects came in between 5.1 and 8.6% below cost.

At least one politician is trying to do something to change the usual approach to budgeting for major infrastructure costs. In March Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) introduced the Fiscal Accountability and Transparency in Infrastructure Spending Act of 2011.

How serious is it? Well, serious enough for publications from Business Week to Scientific American, among others, to issue warnings, usually based on the ASCE “report card.” Anyone who has ever had to endure a loss of electricity knows the helpless feeling when a part of the infrastructure doesn’t perform. Now add to that water treatment plants to ensure you get clean water when you turn on the faucet. You get the point.

Potholes are not big vote-getters. Rusting bridges may not collapse. Landfills are, well, Landfills. You don’t have to be a civil engineer to know how much serious trouble we’re in. It will only get worse if the politicians from D.C. to the town hall do nothing about it.

© Alan Caruba, 2011


Conway said...


In your essay, this sentence says it all:

"Essentially, today’s politicians find infrastructure projects boring. They lack the razzle-dazzle of programs devoted to “renewable energy”, high speed trains, and countless electric cars speeding down the potholed highways of the future."

The politicians of today are like idiot savants, with apologies to any real idiot savants that may be reading.

AD said...

For once, we agree on something.

With interest rates at historic lows, it is definitely the time for another construction-based stimulus. We're going to have to invest in these infrastructure improvements sooner or later, and you are spot-on in how important they are. A $500 billion stimulus that was put to use restoring our roads, dams, and other important items would also put thousands of Americans back to work.

The conditions are perfect, and the need for both employment and infrastructure is irrefutable. Let's have another New Deal!

Alan Caruba said...

Here's a URL to a page listing the 13 Most Dangerous Bridges in America: