What’s Wrong With America’s Ambivalence About Crumbling Infrastructure?

In today’s New York Times, Bob Herbert celebrates the cause of
infrastructure maintenance — a less exciting proposition for
politicians than cutting the ribbon at new transportation projects, but
in many ways more vital to economic growth.

structurally_deficient_bridges_co_2.jpgA crumbling bridge support in Colorado. (Photo: Pure Thinking)

After talking to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), an avowed booster of the National Infrastructure Bank concept, Herbert asks, "What’s wrong with us?" and continues:

We’re so far behind in some
areas that … Rendell has said that getting our infrastructure
act together can feel like “sledding uphill.”

“When I took over
as governor,” he said, “I was told that Pennsylvania led the nation in
the number of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges.
We had more than 5,600 of them. So I put a ton of money into bridge
repair. We more than tripled the amount in the capital budget, from
$200 million a year to $700 million a year. And I got a special
appropriation from the Legislature to do $200 million a year extra for
the next four years.”

One might be tempted to respond that what’s wrong with American
infrastructure policy has much to do with pundits such as Randal
O’Toole of the Cato Institute, who converts new acolytes in Washington
by arguing that the biggest defect in national infrastructure policy is
insufficient road spending. To O’Toole, the fact that one in four of
U.S. bridges is rated obsolete or deficient is no big deal:

“Functionally obsolete” bridges are not in any danger of falling down;
they merely have narrow lanes, inadequate overhead clearances, overly
sharp on- and off-ramps, or other outdated design features. These
bridges pose no risk to auto drivers unless the drivers themselves
drive recklessly.

… "[S]tructurally deficient” bridges have
suffered enough deterioration or damage that their load-carrying
abilities are lower than when they were built. But that still doesn’t
mean they are about to fall down; though they may be closed to heavy
loads, the most serious problem is that they cost more to maintain than
other bridges.

When the debate stumbles on the mere question of whether deficiency is worth fixing — incidentally, the National Bridge Inventory states that
deficient and obsolete bridges often contribute to congestion — it’s
difficult to see a broad consensus emerging in favor of government
spending to bring our built environment into good order. What Herbert
didn’t address in his column, unfortunately, was how to carve out that
consensus by talking in new and different ways about the importance of
infrastructure investment.

Transportation reformers have talked up "fix-it-first"
rules for roads, bridges, and transit, but that ideal often shares
space with messages emphasizing the environmental, job creation, and
efficiency created by more merit-based transportation spending.

Meanwhile, during the crafting of last year’s $787 billion stimulus law, no senator would offer an amendment to add "fix-it-first"
to the bill. Lawmakers saw more to gain by passing the stimulus quickly
than by creating a transportation section that could bring American
infrastructure into a state of good repair. And until Washington senses
a greater political imperative to create a safer, more modern transport
system, what’s wrong with the nation in Herbert’s eyes is likely to
stay wrong.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

STREETSBLOG USA

New Report Examines the Media’s Role in the Gas Tax Debate

|
(Chart: University of Vermont Transportation Research Center) The success of state-level plans to increase gas taxes is tied to the media’s portrayal of the proposals in question, with narratives tied to "crumbling infrastructure" and "economic progress" showing more success than those emphasizing long-term transportation budget gaps, according to a new report released by the University […]
STREETSBLOG USA

The Problem With “Infrastructure Week”

|
You may have noticed that it’s “Infrastructure Week” in America — a time where engineering and construction industry groups beat the drum for more money, using big numbers and images of collapsing bridges. You can follow the dialogue on Twitter. It’s full of value-neutral statements like this one from Democratic members of the House Committee on Transportation […]
STREETSBLOG USA

Just How Lame Will This Lame Duck Be?

|
The GOP has named the 22 members of its transition team and it’s ready to get to work. Don’t expect the work for these lawmakers to include any actual law-making, though. Not till January, anyway. Three years after the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis killed 13 people, Congress still isn't treating infrastructure investment as an […]