Infrastructure, Not So Crumbling


Jack Shafer at Slate wonders if our crumblinginfrastructure (one word in some politicians' usage) is really in such bad shape, when you actually parse the definitions. After quoting some scaremongering major journalism about how "one-quarter of the nation's bridges are "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete," debunker extraordinaire Shafer notes:

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.)….

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.

Samuel Staley and Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation on why not all infrastructure spending is created equal.