What Infrastructure Deficit?

An economist named Ed Dolan who lives in Washington state opines that the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge reveals an “infrastructure deficit.” That’s certainly the prevailing wisdom. But consider this.

The bridge collapsed because one of its supporting beams 14.5 feet above the pavement was hit by an oversized truck that should not have been on the bridge. If that oversized truck had hit that beam in 1955, the year the bridge was built, it would have collapsed then. Instead, the bridge stood for 58 years before being hit by such a truck.

Show me any bridge and I can conceive of a truck big enough to bring it down. That doesn’t prove we have an infrastructure deficit; it only proves that every bridge has a limit to what it can carry. Height and weight limits are posted for most bridges; the driver of the truck crossing the Skagit River last week apparently neglected to read the signs.

According to a group called Save Our Bridges, which wants Congress to take action to solve this non-problem, “Repairing the top 2,000 bridges will cost $60 billion and employ 1.2 million construction workers.” The group adds that “deferred maintenance only adds to our national debt.”

But who is deferring maintenance? The Skagit River bridge didn’t collapse because of deferred maintenance; it collapsed because it was hit by a truck that didn’t belong there. The bridge was actually considered “structurally deficient” a few years ago, but maintenance and improvements by the Washington Department of Transportation fixed it.

Nor was the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed in 2007 suffering from deferred maintenance. In fact, it was undergoing maintenance at the time of the collapse. The National Transportation Safety Board report on the collapse found that it was caused by a construction defect: certain parts called gussets were thinner than they should have been. The gussets were hidden, so the only way state maintenance workers could have detected the problem would have been to dismantle the entire bridge.

Thirteen people died in the Minneapolis bridge collapse. Since then, not a single highway fatality can be traced to a bridge collapse. In the intervening years, however, more than 170,000 people lost their lives in highway accidents, including 34,000 in 2012. Many of these fatalities could have been prevented with safer roads.

Despite this, Speaker of the House John Boehner wants to dedicate oil and gas royalties to highway infrastructure. Yet spending billions of dollars on a crash program to replace bridges on the off chance that one of them might collapse some time in the future makes no sense when other things could be done that would save more lives for less money.

Besides, the bridges are being fixed or replaced anyway. The number of bridges considered “structurally deficient” has declined by 44 percent, from more than 118,000 in 1992 to to fewer than 67,000 in 2012, even as the total number of highway bridges increased from 572,000 to 607,000. The number of fracture-critical bridges has declined from 22,000 to 18,000 in the last four years alone.

Save Our Bridges and other advocates of massive infrastructure spending represent engineering and construction companies that stand to make huge profits on unnecessary government programs. The sad thing is that their propaganda has been successful enough to deceive columnists and economists like Dolan.

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18 thoughts on “What Infrastructure Deficit?

  1. FrancisKing

    Antiplanner wrote:

    “Show me any bridge and I can conceive of a truck big enough to bring it down. ”

    That’s a difference in approach. Here in the EU, there are regulations about high large a lorry must be, and people design to those limits.

  2. Andrew

    Randall:

    Many of these fatalities could have been prevented with safer roads.

    That is highly unlikely. Short of sinkholes opening up underneath drivers or bridges collapsing under them or on top of them, our roads and bridges themselves are very safe as long as they are used by drivers in the manner for which engineers designed them (i.e. within the design speed limit and within line-of-sight stopping distance) and under the rules set by our legislators and common sense (i.e. not driving while impaired, driving the correct way down one-way and divided streets, driving at speeds appropriate for surface conditions, driving with appropriate 2-3 second following distances, not driving in front of trains at railroad crossings, yielding to pedestrians, watching out for foolish kids running into the street, not running red lights and stop signs, not wearing seat belts, etc., etc. ad nauseum).

    The real problem is a lack of safe drivers who are unable to follow simple rules of the road, uninsured and unlicensed drivers who insist on breaking the law to get around in their car, cheap drivers who fail to safely maintain the braking system and lights on their vehicles, and the shear number of drivers who insist on overcrowding many roads to the point of imminent danger in use. These issues are compounded by selective police and DMV enforcement where cars are sold and registered to uninsured individuals, illegal aliens and people unable to read english language street signs are given drivers licenses, elderly people with impaired vision and reaction times are allowed to keep their licenses without restesting, teenagers allowed on the road with minimal or no driver’s education, and roads that are purposefully signed at speeds below their design speed, or traffic lights that are given mistimed yellows.

    When you are looking for blame for the mass carnage on the roads, look at drivers and the government, not Highway engineers and constructors.

  3. Dan

    Randal, the infrastructure deficit that has been documented for years by the highly-credible group of engineers that document infrastructure deficits for a living.

    Surely you have read these reports. If you wish to argue that they are not believable, you should argue against these annual reports that document infrastructure deficits instead of studiously avoiding them, because these annual reports are the standard.

    That is: your argument might gain traction if you show how the standard reports are flawed, instead of avoiding them altogether and hoping no one knows they exist.

    HTH

    DS

  4. LazyReader

    The problem with any infrastructure is risk. Whether it’s roads, pipelines, plumbing, sewer, gas, electric and husing. Of course developers have not had to worry of the concept of risk for years. Millions of dollars of beachfront property swept out to sea is proof of that. Of course if disaster’s are common, you’d think they’d enhance safety measures to protect homes. Instead of building plywood McMansions, build houses on stilts in the flood prone areas. Build houses without pitched gables and and dormers and construct flat roofs for hurricane prone areas. No flammable materials in places where wildfires occur. If it’s risky to build there (which begs the question why are you building) the insurance prices will rise. Do one of two things. Build there or not. More specific, if you build, accept the risk and pay a high fee and fewer people will build there and the people that do without the fees, if your house is destroyed then you don’t get reimbursed, well that’s life.

    A bridge over troubled waters is a response to housing in a troublesome area. Or don’t build or they’ll be less building going on. If people knew they’re going to be federally reimbursed by the government of course more are willing. You turn a local problem into state or federal problem and taxpayers…..who may live in the desert or mountains where they don’t really get floods or hurricanes are the ones bailing them out asking lower, middle class people to pay to rebuild million dollar+ homes. It’s not fair, it’s not good economics and what we undermine is the principle of measuring risk, people end up doing things they wouldn’t normally do like build right on the edge of the sea.

    Cities like New York would not exist if not for huge subsidies. Hugely subsidized mass transit system, subsidies and tax breaks to encourage developers to buy lots, exemptions to build high rises with additional floors. Meanwhile Manhattan has a surplus of office space, a shortage of living space and yet they’re “planning” to account for growth of an additional million people by 2030 with infrastructure decades old that they’ve no means to pay for; a subway that’ll need 20 billion dollars to repair and 80 billion to totally replace it.

  5. bennett

    I’m with Mr. O’Toole on this one. As I recall roadways are safer than ever. It’s best to leave the administrative functions of DOT’s to the administrative bodies. Politicizing these efforts aren’t going to make anybody safer.

  6. JOHN1000

    The pro-government planners claim fixing bridges for $60 billion would create 1.2 million jobs. Realistically, after planning costs, environmental assessments, the costs of materials and anticipated government waste, you would be lucky to create, on a temporary basis, a few thousand jobs.

  7. prk166

    “Randal, the infrastructure deficit that has been documented for years by the highly-credible group of engineers that document infrastructure deficits for a living.”
    -Dan

    That is, a profession of people who stand to benefit greatly from increased spending on public projects is declaring that anything less than top notch infrastructure is a “defecit”. If us software engineers took the same approach, we’d be running around saying the US needs to spend $2.3 trillion on new software enhancements over the next decade. When in fact, we could spend $0 for enhancements, just spend on operations, and we’d be just fine.

    The US engineers may give the street in front of my home a D+ since despite being in city that devil’s strip doesn’t have a proper curb and storm drain on either side. And the sidewalk’s gotten pushed up in a couple spots where someone may trip. But really, overall it’s just fine by normal people standards; there’s no deficit.

  8. msetty

    Dan, I have to concur on Randal on this one. “Gotta give the devil his due” when he’s as right on this issue as he’s wrong on the riots in Stockholm issue.

    The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps telling us that we have trillions in infrastructure spending shortfalls. I think they’re partially correct, e.g., we do need to spending more on maintenance and rebuilding of critical infrastructure, in the transportation sector particularly upgrading/replacing structurally deficient bridges, repaving of streets and roads to an acceptable level, etc. (Here in Napa County, the condition of street and road pavement has declined dramatically since the mid-1990’s; I’ve stopped counting the number of potholes and areas of pavement failure on the mountainous side road where I live. Fortunately, the local politicians have taken notice and some steps to deal with the problem–within very tight budgets–and obtained voter approval to flip the local flood control tax to fixing pavement in 2018 when it expires.)

    There are two big problems with what ASCE claims, particularly on the road side.

    (1) The term “functionally obsolete” in relation to bridges is quite Orwellian in that it really means “we just want to widen it” since 2005 in the face of future traffic trends that are static or declining. Sometimes replacing a “functionally obsolete” bridge can be justified due to safety or unrealistically low weight limits, in rare cases even in severe congestion conditions which I’d concede.

    (2) Similarly, the “infrastructure deficit” usually claimed by groups such as ASCE include hundreds of billions if not trillions in planned road expansions that have been on the books for years. Again, some road expansion may be justified for safety or in cases where current facilities are grossly overloaded, such as the current 2-lane, 30,000+ ADT Highway 12 between Solano and Napa Counties which is finally being widened to 4 lanes, probably 30 years later than it should have been.

    The trouble is that, for every project like Highway 12, there are 10 or 20 highway capacity expansion projects that probably cannot be justified, particularly in light of the leveling off of traffic growth and future uncertainty about ADT growth that’s occurred since 2005. And for every Highway 12 there are several Iowa Route 163/US 34 corridors (e.g., Des Moines–Burlington via Ottumwa) corridors where freeway bypasses costing hundreds of millions have been built around every town, but through traffic is only about 3,500-7,000 vehicles per day, e.g., such low volumes that make CA HSR look economic!

    I suspect Randal would agree that politicians in general like flashy new projects that they can obtain through “free” money, e.g., grants. Charles Marohn and his “Strong Towns” project (http://www.strongtowns.org/ have it right, I believe: the problem with grants come when cities and counties must maintain and rebuild the facilities built with grants 20 or 30 years earlier.

    I agree with Mahron et al that ongoing maintenance and future replacement needs to be considered in evaluating a project; he also points out that the infrastructure of modern suburbs is grossly overextended relative to the taxes brought in, and that “strong towns” strive to make sure that development supported by rebuilt or new infrastructure brings in enough revenues in the long run for ongoing maintenance and eventual replacement. This is why he generally sides with Kunstler in the idea that far too many resources have been thrown at the suburbs over the past seven decades, particularly because the rebuilding/replacement bill is now coming due.

    In contrast, the bill to restore the rail and transit service we used to have is at least an order of magnitude less expensive. And of course, the same principles apply to transit, but that’s another thread.

  9. msetty

    Just an aside, the Strong Town folks are NOT liberal cit denizens dumping on the suburbs; rather they’re fiscal conservatives in the “business Republican/Yankee New Englander” sense. See http://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme/. I’d say they document Kunstler’s claim that “US suburbs are the greatest mis-allocation of resources in history” with facts, rather than sometimes bloviated rhetoric, which is Kunstler’s specialty.

  10. LazyReader

    Kunstler talks about the law of depreciating returns he’s an interesting character. What’s ironic he now lives in a suburb he rents. What strikes us is he dislikes mega cities as well. The heavily overbuilt metropolises like New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Mexico City and especially Los Angeles. Yet he was born in New York. The appointed “Scurge of Suburbia” despite having moved to a suburban community; I can’t imagine why, maybe he didn’t sell enough books.

    He dislikes modern architecture, so do I at least what passes for modern architecture today as fashionable and expensive. Modern architecture is fine is small doses. What he considers a waste of resources, I say what resources, most houses are made of wood, a renewable resource. And stone/concrete- a vast resource. (6.5 billion trillion tons of it)

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2007/10/28/202029/why-i-dont-agree-with-james-kuntsler-about-peak-oil-and-the-end-of-suburbia/?mobile=nc

  11. LazyReader

    In many of the Antiplanners presentations he often cites that European cities have lost huge portions of it’s population. In particular he often cites inner Paris having lost 2/3rds of it’s population. Where is this data to which I can see?

  12. msetty

    Lazy Reader, a lot of the decline in population in inner cities such as Paris are due mainly to large shrinkage in average household size. In places like Paris, the average housing space available per person has increased dramatically, but is still not nearly as capacious as typical suburban houses in either Europe or the US. But then, the urban fabric of places like Paris (and New York City) serves as the “living room” for millions of people.

    As for Kunstler moving to a small town, it really isn’t a suburb, e.g., too far away from Albany for easy commuting. And he lives a 10-15 minutes from the town center, at least what’s left of it. I think part of his reasoning is that he wanted enough room for his own large vegetable garden, which is possible in rural small towns but not big cities like New York City.

  13. Fred_Z

    There in the EU there are regulations about every damn thing in the universe, up to and including the allowed curvature of your bananas. Better a thousand bridges collapse than to live under your tyranny.

  14. Fred_Z

    “the highly-credible group of engineers that document infrastructure deficits for a living. ”

    You never have understood “Cui bono”, have you?

    Is there any any engineer in your highly credible group that does not believe, firmly and with the full faith of his soul and his bank account, that much engineering needs to be done? That gigantic and huge amounts of engineering need to be done? Ad infinitum?

    My oldest son is an engineer. I showed him your comment. He is still laughing.

  15. Dan

    I didn’t claim that the grades for road infra were 100% accurate, but I did ask why you wouldn’t argue against the standard instead of some obscure advocacy group. I’m sure we all agree that our road infra is not being maintained at the rate it is degrading and something needs to change.

    DS

  16. prk166

    ” I’m sure we all agree that our road infra is not being maintained at the rate it is degrading and something needs to change.” – Dan

    Why would you be sure that we all agree on that? Isn’t it obvious from the original post and comments and all of us do not?

  17. Dan

    prk, I’m sorry some people have such low expectations and are unaware of the decreased amount of spending on road maintenance, such that they need to believe nothing needs to change. How sad!

    DS

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