COLUMN-Infrastructure rhetoric is a bridge to nowhere

Fri Feb 15, 2013 5:05pm EST

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(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By Jack Shafer

Feb 15 (Reuters) - 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.

(Jack Shafer)

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