Infrastructure rhetoric is a bridge to nowhere

By Jack Shafer
February 15, 2013
Whenever the phrase “our crumbling infrastructure” passes the lips of a politician or appears in the pages of a newspaper, I change the password on my checking account and move my wallet to the front pocket of my jeans. So when President Barack Obama invoked our “aging infrastructure badly in need of repair” in his State of the Union address on Tuesday and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria used his perch yesterday to complain that Obama wasn’t proposing near enough for infrastructure, I closed my bank accounts, canceled my credit cards, converted my liquid investments into gold bullion, dumped them into 55-gallon drums, rolled the drums into a backyard pit and poured a load of cement over the heap.

It’s not that infrastructure doesn’t crumble — everything turns to dust eventually. Obviously, useful bridges, ports, airports and highways need to be maintained, and as a country grows it needs new ones. It’s just that the press allows members of the civil engineering-industrial complex to bamboozle them into believing that all calls for building infrastructure are equal.

The bamboozling usually begins with a sweeping declaration about America’s shoddy highway bridges and the urgent need to repair them. Obama hit his mark in his State of the Union speech where he plugged his “Fix-It-First” program, which would mend the “nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.” Zakaria finds Fix-It-First insufficient, calling it a mere “Band-Aid on America’s growing cancer of failing infrastructure.” Citing the 2009 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which gave the nation’s infrastructure a “D” and estimated the cost of repairing it at $2.2 trillion, Zakaria demands the dramatic expansion of American infrastructure. The ASCE recently upped its estimate of how much should be spend on infrastructure by 2020 to $2.7 trillion (pdf), which is two-thirds greater than the feds, the states and local governments are expected to spend on it by then. Zakaria expressed even greater enthusiasm for spending infrastructure trillions in a November piece for Time.

Zakaria isn’t alone in calling for massive infrastructure spending by the government. Business Insider’s Henry Blodget is on board, as is the Washington Post‘s Neil Irwin, the Economist, the Atlantic, Edward Luce of the Financial Times and others in the press. A current World Economic Forum report (pdf) on global competitiveness ranks U.S. infrastructure as 25th-best in the world, behind Barbados, the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland, which is No. 1. The degrading infrastructure, says the ASCE, could cost the average American household $3,100 by the 2020 if current trends continue.

One thing you can say about the infrastructure hawks is that they are consistent in their warnings. As far back as 1983, scholar Amitai Etzioni was quoted in the pages of Time (paid) warning that infrastructure neglect was turning America into “an underdeveloping country, with its modern economy in reverse gear,” a notion that Time endorsed. Four years ago, I wrote a column for Slate about the exaggerations of the infrastructure hawks, who were filling newspapers and airwaves with similar warnings that our roads, water pipes and electric grid were verging on collapse. (Many of the ideas in that column are reprised here, although I like my new, rejiggered intro better.)

Then as now, the hawks’ favorite infrastructure apocalypse anecdote was the tens of thousands of “structurally deficient” bridges in the land. Zakaria currently asserts that these deficient bridges are “falling down,” but he’s totally wrong. As the Federal Highway Administration explains (pdf), when inspectors grade a bridge as “structurally deficient” they’re not saying it’s unsafe, only that it is deteriorating and its load-carrying capacity is reduced. Likewise, bridges can be graded “functionally obsolete” because their design is outdated — too narrow or not enough clearance underneath, for example — and still be safe. The federal rating system gives an “early warning sign for engineers to use to prioritize funding,” as the Maryland State Highway Administration points out. “If a bridge becomes unsafe, it will be closed.”

In 2007, when there were 72,500 structurally deficient bridges in the United States, and after the I-35 disaster in Minneapolis, which was caused by a design flaw, federal Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin L. Scovell III told (pdf) Congress that “most bridges that are classified as structurally deficient can continue to serve traffic safely if they are properly inspected, the bridges maximum load ratings are properly calculated, and, when necessary, the proper maximum weight limits are posted.”

As much as I trust America’s civil engineers to design safe bridges, I’m a little reluctant to endorse the infrastructure report cards issued by the 140,000-member ASCE. The $2.7 trillion infrastructure bill they’d like us to foot amounts to a full employment act for the society’s members, something that goes unsaid in the press corps’ uncritical coverage of the ASCE’s report cards. Before I get all hinky about our crumbling infrastructure, exhume my gold and contribute it to the infrastructure revival, I’d like to see an infrastructure report card from disinterested parties. The disinterested parties I seek are not the union leader, the business leader and the Democratic former governor who spoke in support of three infrastructure “mega-bills” this week before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Infrastructure overhaul will obviously benefit some ‑ unions, businesses and politicians praising them before congressional committees, for example ‑ but as with most government projects, somebody always ends up paying for more than they consume. For these losers, the infrastructure makeover will be like playing a hand of poker in which everybody contributes to the pot but they are dealt no cards. The undisputed winners of any infrastructure sweepstakes will be the construction contractors retained to do the building. Last month, 24/7 Wall St. identified 11 companies, ranging from Fluor to KBR to Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, that would most profit most from an infrastructure makeover.

Anything with a $2.7 trillion price tag should be approached with suspicion, especially if its boilerplate sales pitch always includes crisis-mongering talk about structurally deficient bridges. The political debate over what to build would benefit if policymakers and the press stopped grouping such disparate public-works categories of surface transportation, airports, waterways and ports, the electricity grid and waterworks all under the all-encompassing rubric of “infrastructure” and started asking narrowing questions. Perhaps the infrastructure pie should be sliced a little thinner so we can ask more precise questions about it. Was some infrastructure overbuilt and not deserving of repair today just because it exists? Does every infrastructure “need” demand a flotilla of dollars from Washington? Must we rescue every aging bridge in rapidly depopulating states like Michigan? Shouldn’t infrastructure projects such as harbor dredging be billed to those who directly benefit from them, and not the government?

Many have learned to ask skeptical questions about the effectiveness or necessity of, say, military spending or agricultural subsidies or bank bailouts. The only reason infrastructure gets a comparative free pass is because the word casts a magical spell of dumbfoundment on too many of us. Cast it off, I say.

******

You’ll notice that I completely ignored the whole infrastructure-as-stimulus debate. Submit your infrastructure funding requests to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed: I built that! Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama tells Congress to pass the infrastructure piece of the American Jobs Act while at the Georgetown Waterfront Park in Washington, November 2, 2011. REUTERS/Larry Downing
21 comments

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Don’t you find it strange that while we whine about our terrible roads and bridges all the commercial road organizations are negotiating for higher per vehicle load weights and in some states, triple bottom semi’s? The very thing that broke these roads and bidges in the first place is not a subject your average taxpayer gets a voice in.

Posted by bixbysbigsur | Report as abusive

Excellent points.

I sometimes also wonder to what degree decaying infrastructure stories are shaped by the presence of so much of the national news media in New York. Whenever I visit I always feel like New York’s infrastructure is subpar relative to much of the country. It’s not solely, or even primarily, in terms of usability or capacity, though obviously New York is crowded. A lot of it is that New York’s airports, subways, etc. just aren’t as nice or comfortable as many other areas. I’d attribute that partly to the fact that New York’s infrastructure was built before most other places in the country. It’s also partly because New York is such an expensive place to build or repair any infrastructure. Finally, there are the historical peculiarities, such as not connecting the airports to subway/rail lines until recent years, and having somewhat convoluted systems as a result.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

Funny what passes for patriotism among the wealthy tax dodgers of today.

The greatest crime of this millenium was United States Bush admininstration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraq had never done America any harm whatsoever.

America spent over $2 trillion dollars on that war. But the American government under Bush didn’t have $2 trillion, so it had to borrow the money.

And today, America has yet to pay back that $2 trillion debt. America instead is simply carrying that war debt on its books forward, and paying quarterly interest on it.

Of all the mistakes America has made during the entire lifespans of all living Americans today, young and old, no mistake approaches the economic damage to America done by the Bush admininstration’s bloody, bungling and disasterous invasion of Iraq just 10 years ago, in 2003.

What would America’s infrastructure look like today if we had spent that $100 billion per month here instead of in Iraq?

Most of America’s wealthy, so greedy, so utterly selfish in avoiding even the tiniest of taxes, constantly criticize any efforts to build America’s infrastructure.

How ashamed the generation before us would feel for us if they read this editorial.

It was they, that generation or real Americans, who, led by President Dwight Eisenhower, created the Interstate Highway System, on a gigantic scale. They were not foreign-born, but born in America. They were not foreign workers, migrant workers, or slaves. They were American born workers, the greatest workers the world has ever known.

President Eisenhower, for those who don’t know, rose to fame as Supreme Allied Commander for Europe in WWII. It was he, General Eisenhower, who led and managed the Allied invasion that toppled the Nazis. It was he who warned against the rising American military-industrial complex.

But here today, we have the likes of the new American based conservative whiners, who gather under their common trait of pusillanimity, so greedily and fearfully guarding the wealth they know they have no real right to.

They are destroying our nation, destroying its middle class. Outsourcing its jobs, importing migrant workers, driving wage rates down to increase their profits.

They, the wealthy, are using up and wearing out our infrastructure, milking our nation and its people for every drop of profit they can extract. And they don’t want to pay for one penny of the infrastructure themselves.

They do not deserve to live in America.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Since I have had the opportunity to travel fairly extensively over the last few decades, I can attest to the embarrassing state of the US infrastructure. It is not the worst in the world by far, but compared to other economic nations we look old and worn out. NY City just looks terrible. The buildings themselves are just literally falling apart. Scaffolding tunnels on the side walks because cornice and parapets are falling down. Cheaper than fixing it, but pretty embarrassing if you look at the other nations.
I don’t see how the USCA is going to upgrade it though. I don’t think even the Fed would be willing to print that much money. It would take huge forest of trees to even re-build the Tappan Zee bridge in NY. That one is going to bankrupt the state of NY, just watch and see. I think it is beyond our governments ability to do this. We first need to “re-boot” the government, then try to rebuild for the future.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I have no idea how this idiot thinks we should fix our roads, bridges, water systems, etc. All of these things were built by public entities of some kind. I would like to know what his solution is. Surely its not the “private sector”. They haven’t built any infrastructure in this country for years unless it is through a monopoly like a utility that has a guaranteed profit. They won’t even finance a football or baseball stadium with their own cash.

Posted by BruceS78 | Report as abusive

There is no point in fixing the infrastructure without manufacturing jobs to support the need for it.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

Of course the northeast looks old, it is old. If it had been destroyed by war and rebuilt (think Marshall Plan) it would probably look a little nicer.

Realist50 (the second comment) has just about covered it so I won’t waste time adding more.

Posted by Missinginaction | Report as abusive

What an intelligent rebuttal to what otherwise seems perfectly obvious, thank you. Our region is due for a 9.0 Earthquake, most of the bridges in our district have WOOD decking beneath the concrete. So if you issue is the price tag and you want third party vetting, then okay, if you are seriously saying that it is a mistake to NOT use record low financing, idle equipment, and idle labor to rebuild what we must rebuild anyway at some point- you cannot be taken seriously. Why pay unemployment and defer projects until the .gov sector will compete with a recovered construction industry for equipment, labor, and financing in a future recovered economy. You at least are not taking into account the counter-cyclical benefits under both scenarios. This seems like a sensationalized opinion for the sake of publicity. No one believes in cutting infrastructure spending outright, that would demonstrate a grossly remedial grasp of both economics and construction logistics.

Posted by rlindsl | Report as abusive

The Brent Spence bridge for I-75 over the Ohio river should be replaced just to spite Boehner and Mcconnel! It really is an awful trip over the river and through the woods of Cincinnati.

So says Wikipedia: “Residents often believe the bridge to be structurally deficient, but it is actually functionally obsolete.”

Posted by silliness | Report as abusive

Okay, so let me see if I understand this correctly…

This writer believes that we should shut our wallets to our nation’s infrastructure because:

1. We’ll be in danger of doing it overly well, and wind up with infrastructure that is undesirably durable and/or useable.
2. Money will wind up in the hands of people who actually make real things for a living, unlike himself and his investor-suit friends.
3. It will benefit only “the few” — a teensy clique in which I assume is included only the Americans who, say, drive vehicles on roads, walk on sidewalks, or spend time in public spaces. He is clearly irritated by this elitist club, and does not wish to contribute to their little road-using, sidewalk-walking, public-space-populating behavior.

Is that about it?

Posted by ikshields | Report as abusive

Oh yes, I almost forgot:

As I understand it, the primary reason this writer seems resistant to infrastructure spending is because there’s been “rhetoric” on the subject.

Worse, people are rhetoric-ing about it quite a lot, as though all these physical roads and bridges and sewers and stuff were some kind of big deal!

In other words, it’s suspicious, because we’re talking about it.

Now I think I understand: Jack Shafer is an angry Transcendentalist.

Posted by ikshields | Report as abusive

@2:47 am UTC – I’ve never heard so much dribble in all my life. Who in the hell has and probably will always pay most of the taxes in this country. The rich and wealthy, not us. They start the businesses that employs most of us. This country is a powerhouse because of these people. People like Bill Gates, Ford, Rockefeller’s, and countless small businesses. Maybe if these people did not feel under attack by people like you and people like the current president this country would be doing better. As for Iraq don’t forget that this country invaded an oil producing country. We still import over 20% of our oil from the countries in this part of the world. Hopefully within the next decade or two that might be change if this president and the environmental nuts don’t ruin it.

Posted by jorge62 | Report as abusive

Let me sum up Jack’s points.

1) We should devise a new classification scheme that only classifies bridges as dangerous AFTER they have fallen down.

2) Our government’s problem is that it spends too much money on good investments in things like infrastructure that a) Create jobs b)Improve attractiveness to foreign investment c) make our communities safer.

got it…

Ok Jack we are ready for you to take us to the conservative promised land now that you have made such intelligent points.

One questions though. Where was this article under the Bush Regime? Conservatives must have amnesia from that time period or they would remember the 3 massive infrastructure bills that passed with bipartisan support. It’s only in the last 4 years that we have a political party (The Republicans) that decided to turn coat on America and block all infrastructure bills in an effort to stymie the economy then use that same sluggish growth to sling mud at the President and Democrats.

Posted by Jackthebeankook | Report as abusive

you are sir, an intellectual baboon. Rhetoric? Infrastructure? You used that in the same sentence? It isn’t rhetoric when many of the US mainland’s bridges are very close to collapsing my uniformed egoist. The roads are in much better shape. It isn’t a question of politics, but common sense. These things MUST be taken care of, regardless of politics. These projects will of course create jobs, it goes without saying.
Next time, speak about something you can handle, like making cookies, you metrosexual rosebud.

Posted by chinamike | Report as abusive

Funny how amid all the taxes we pay (gas, car tags, property) that are supposed to fund the roads, it is never enough. It’s the steak dinner scenario. Are you buying? Sure I’ll have that steak. Lets not forget the runoff money either that will go to this or that agency for an environmental impact study before repairs are done. I’d bet that maybe 10 cents out of every dollar allotted actually goes to the project its self. The rest is just funneled back through the overlapping red tape agencies.

Here’s an idea. Lets reverse the State and Federal tax systems and responsibilities. 5% Federal tax (for those Constitutionally mandated responsibilities) and 20% State to return responsibilities to the populace that uses them (schools, roads, welfare, etc.). But then there’s that equality BS, the population BS, agricultural vs industrial BS, etc.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

@jorge62

Didn’t Henry Ford say that if the people had a clue how banking really worked they would revolt tomorrow? Didn’t Rockefeller say that if you gave him control of the money supply he could care less about who makes the laws? Let’s not forget that money IS the root of all evil, hence so many sayings about it. As long as the money supply is monopolized, there will never be any peace. Profit depends upon conflict. It needs rich AND poor, ruler AND ruled. Feudalism, nor Kingship, nor slavery ever ended, it just dished out the freedom to elect a master once every 4 years. The best defense a man has against tyranny is to keep his money in his own pocket and in his control.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

@jorge62, your comment about the rich and wealthy makes me smile. It’s the collective taxes of the middle-class, of whom there are millions, who pay the most taxes. Here’s an example. How much does a government take in if 50 people give $100 which is 10% of their income? Now, how much money does a government take in if 50,000 people give $5.00, which is 20% of their income?

The rich don’t pay more than the middle-class at all – not proportionally by any stretch. Romney paid 15%. I paid 26%. Trust me, he has a LOT more money than I do. Get off your horse about the woes of the rich and wealthy, okay? I’m not broke – I’m just not buying.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

“I’d like to see an infrastructure report card from disinterested parties”

Oh wouldn’t that be valuable, a report on the state of our nation’s infrastructure from those who couldn’t care less. While we’re at it, let’s get our medical consultations from bartenders and legal advice from plumbers.

Posted by changeling | Report as abusive

@changeling, I think the word “disinterested” in context means “free from bias”.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Infrastructure doesn’t just mean bridges that might not collapse, but includes other components of our transportation, energy, and communications networks that our economy and standard of living rely on.

While the rest of the industrialized world and many developing nations have high speed trains that move people and freight 150 mph or faster, our trains move along at 1950s era 50 mph, mainly because enough people believe trains are socialist tools undeserving of public financing. However, high speed trains help the economy by providing faster, more efficient intercity transportation than the hub-and-spoke-and-heavily-oil dependent airlines.

While the Internet was developed and introduced to the world in the U.S., our 2013 version of this essential piece of infrastructure is way behind most indsutrialized and developing nations, in terms of affordability and speed. And its pitiful state isn’t due to lack of public financing, but rather lack of government oversight of defacto monopolies.

We have an aging electricity grid that is inefficient and incapable of mathing energy supply with demand in the 21st century. Instead of investing in upgrading the energy infrastructure, we have politicians who insist we should continue to dedicate capital to preserving this century’s version of the horse and carriage.

Maybe most of the bridges won’t fail in the next 50 years, but some will (one big one collapsed in Minneapolis a few years ago), and we won’t be able to predict which ones. However, the cost of one bridge failing is probably greater than updating 10 or 20 or maybe even 50 bridges before they fall into the water. Which is why it makes sense to fix them. Because you know, when one fails, it will impact the economy.

People rail against public spending on the infrastructure, but it is the infrastructure that is effectively the vehicle for the economy that generates the profits that people earn and don’t want to pay taxes on to maintain and upgrade the economy.

When the cost of transportation and energy in the U.S., and the speed and availability of communications, creates a competitive disadvantage for American companies, maybe then you’ll dig your gold out from your concrete encased drums. Not to spend on the infrastructure, of course, but to just spend, because somebody else will be taking your business.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

The writer of this article is a cheap and pacifist fool.

Posted by adrian21 | Report as abusive