Press Box

Infrastructure Madness

Don’t believe everything you read about the failing bridges and antiquated waterworks.

Are we really in the throes of an infrastructure disaster?

Whenever the government and the construction industry start squawking to the press about the horrors of our aging, crumbling, decaying, decrepit infrastructure, and warn that we must spend hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars on waterworks, bridges, and roads, please observe this three-step safety procedure:

1) Place your hand firmly on your wallet,
2) slip your B.S. detector over your ears and fasten tightly,
3) and read all the fine print before you take your hand off your wallet.

Why such extreme vigilance? Because it takes little to convince reporters that our infrastructure has rusted to hell and that tens of billions must be spent now on construction products lest both our economy and our bridges collapse.

The current round of infrastructure madness finds the New York Times reporting earnestly (Jan. 28) and the Los Angeles Times (Sept. 14, 2008) editorializing frightfully about the crisis contained in the fact that one-quarter of the nation’s bridges are “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.” A Boston Globe editorial (Oct. 28, 2008) bemoans the fact that “150,000 US bridges [are] rated as deficient.” And Time magazine’s coverage (Nov. 4, 2008) likewise warns of “more than 150,000 structurally deficient bridges” and declares that “America’s infrastructure is broken.”

The scary-sounding phrases structurally deficient and functionally obsolete combined with those big numbers are enough to make you bite your nails bloody every time you drive over a river or beneath an underpass. Yet if any of the cited pieces paused to define either inspection term, you’d come away from the alarmist stories with a yawn. As a 2006 report by U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration puts it (very large PDF):

Structural deficiencies are characterized by deteriorated conditions of significant bridge elements and reduced load carrying capacity. Functional obsolescence is a function of the geometrics of the bridge not meeting current design standards. Neither type of deficiency indicates that the bridge is unsafe. [Emphasis added.]

A “structurally deficient” bridge can safely stay in service if weight limitations are posted and observed and the bridge is monitored, inspected, and maintained. A bridge designed in the 1930s could be deemed “functionally obsolete” because it’s narrower than modern standards dictate or because its clearance over a highway isn’t up to modern snuff, not because it’s in danger of tumbling down. (The Department of Transportation’s 2004 inventory found 77,796 U.S. bridges structurally deficient and 80,632 functionally obsolete, for a totally of 158,428 deficient bridges.)

None of this is to suggest that we needn’t worry about repairing or maintaining bridges, only to observe that the state of the nation’s bridges ain’t as dire as the press makes it out. If you’ve read this far, you like the scent of my Web page or you care about infrastructure, so I’ll continue. Let’s say the federal government spends billions in stimulus cash both to bring 1930s bridges up to 2009 standards and to rescue other bridges from their deficiencies. What are the chances that the states that handle some of that money will spend it in an accountable fashion? Not good.

In a Nov. 17, 2007, memorandum, Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III of the Department of Transportation wrote that the Federal Highway Administration “is unable to determine how much of the funding provided to states is actually spent on structurally deficient bridges because its financial management system does not differentiate between spending on structurally deficient bridges and other bridge-related expenditures.”

So credulous is press coverage that reporters almost never ask whether some Rust Belt bridges might be redundant or economically superfluous because industry and population have moved on. And just because a bridge occupied a place on the traffic grid once shouldn’t give it a right to eternal service.

As Tom G. Palmer wrote in the February 1983 Inquiry magazine (disclosure: I worked there), “it is no accident that while the rhetoric is repair, the reality is new construction.” He continues:

Highway-improvement politics differs little from military hardware procurement. Rather than keeping old systems in good repair, money flows into flashy new structures where millions can be lavished on consultants, research, and planning.

Big construction projects—not well-executed maintenance projects—deliver political rewards, Palmer holds. “Nobody ever held a ribbon cutting-ceremony for the painting of a bridge,” he observes this week.

For those of us who track infrastructure madness in the press, the current round is mighty familiar. As deplorable as our bridges may be, they’re better than they were a generation ago. Today, the government classifies about 25 percent of U.S. bridges as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. A July 18, 1982, New York Times article headlined “Alarm Rise Over Decay in U.S. Public Works” cites government statistics that classify 45 percent of U.S. bridges deficient or obsolete. *

Infrastructure madness has already spread from the bridges to America’s waterworks, where the New York Times pegged an April 18 story about the fragility of America’s water system to the fact that the town of Chelan, Wash., still has some wood pipes. Not until you reach the story’s end do you learn that Chelan is a resort town (summer population 3,860) and that its remaining wood pipes are not an infrastructure problem. Chelan’s director of public works is replacing the last 500-foot section before it fails because repairing wood pipe requires expertise he doesn’t have.


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Correction, April 22, 2009: The original version of this article gave the incorrect date of the 1982 New York Times article about public works. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)