Infrastructure

The Infrastructure Crisis That Isn’t

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks / Foter.com / CC BY

Listen to President Obama, and you'd think the United States has a serious infrastructure funding problem. In his State of the Union address this year, for example, Obama proposed a jobs program that would put people to work building and rebuilding national infrastructure in need of "urgent" repair, like "the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country."

But as Bloomberg's Evan Soltas argues today, the idea that the U.S. is in desperate need of higher spending is something of a myth: 

Believe it or not, infrastructure has improved significantly over the last two decades. In its report for 2010, the Federal Highway Administration said that 57 percent of all vehicle-miles were traveled on federal highways with ratings of "good" or higher—according to a measure of road quality pleasingly known as the International Roughness Index. That was up from 48 percent in 2000. The percentage of roads in bad condition has also declined: In 1989 6.6 percent of rural and urban interstates were rated "poor"; now only 1.9 percent of rural interstates and 5.4 percent of urban ones earn that grade.

Despite warnings from President Barack Obama, America's bridges have never been safer. The highway administration rated 21.9 percent of its bridges "deficient" in 2009, as compared to 37.8 percent in 1989. And contrary to Obama's implication, the word "deficient" does not mean unsafe, at least as the highway administration uses it. A bridge is "deficient" when it would benefit from expansion and renovation in line with usage.

Soltas also notes that U.S. infrastructure spending as a percentage of the economy has held fairly steady over the years, and that America's infrastructure budget puts it basically in line with global peers like Germany, Canada, and Australia. 

Much of the concern over the sturdiness of U.S. infrastructure is driven by the regularly released American Society of Civil Engineers report card, which invariably gives the nation's infrastructure a poor grade. But what most reports fail to note is that the ASCE isn't exactly a disinterested party; on the question of whether or not we should spend more money on civil engineering, it is not entirely shocking to discover that a group of civil engineers thinks we ought to spend a whole lot more. 

The other point to make here is that a clear-eyed look at the nation's infrastructure spending undermines the case for spending lots more money building roads and such as a way to create jobs. It would be one thing if those projects were desperately necessary, but in many cases they're not. 

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52 responses to “The Infrastructure Crisis That Isn’t

  1. “Listen to President Obama, and you’d think the United States has a serious infrastructure.”

    I think it more a light comedy infrastructure, myself.

    1. Fixed!

      1. So, to distill and summarize this internet blog post, the gist is:

        FUCK you; cut spending.

        Honestly, Suderman, this is clearly one of your best.

  2. Say, those aren’t roads; they’re railroad tracks. What kind of crap is Reason trying to pull here?

    1. More like wagon tracks.

      1. No, my kids have those tracks. Rail.

        1. Looks more like a groove to me.

          And those things were awesome. I never had them, but I loved to go to the fancy toy store and play with them.

        2. Ruts are not rails. In fact, they are the exact opposite.

    2. What kind of crap is Reason trying to pull here?

      Duh, they’re trying to revert everything back to the 18th century.

      1. Or it’s a rail fetish.

        1. But only old-timey rail, with its sexy steam.

  3. Lying Liar lies. Color me not surprised.

    1. It’s pretty much a given at this point that whatever the Anointed One says, no matter how inconsequential, the exact polar opposite is the truth.

      He’s Bizarro president.

      1. Seems pretty normal to me… for a president anyway.

  4. Infrastructure would be in even better shape if they did not waste money on light rail lines few people use or million dollar bus stops.

    Where I live they built a over priced under used light rail line parallel to the interstate. They neglected to repair the interstate so that dozens of vehicles were damaged due to pot holes. A fraction of what they paid for the light rail line could have repaved the entire section of interstate which carries far more people then the light rail line will ever carry.

  5. Having just swung through eight states, I found the roads – except for Michigan – were pretty good.

    I also went through several long tunnels, probably made in the 1950s with the extensive use of dynamite. These days, I can’t imagine the amount of red tape for such a project.

    1. Buckaroo Banzai is developing a workaround.

  6. the ASCE isn’t exactly a disinterested party

    Next you’ll tell me Randi Weingarten has some sort of ulterior motive when she tells me we need to spend more money on schools.

    1. Randi Weingarten has some sort of ulterior motive when she tells me we need to spend more money on schools.

  7. When I was in high school nearly 30 years ago, there was a “national infrastructure crisis”. When I was in law school there was an information super highway crisis.

    1. There have been a lot of “national crisises” in my life, as short as it’s been. The only one that I think actually qualifies was 9/11.

      1. No, you’re forgetting the time when ethanol subsidies encouraged farmers to burn their agave crops so they could grow corn. That was a threat to our precious tequila supply.

        1. While tequila is vital to my lifestyle (though not through my consumption), I was never worried about the production output of our southern neighbors. If it came to it, we could always… liberate… their tequila reserves.

          1. What reserves? The threats to our precious tequila are many and insidious.

            And, of course, with corn getting sucked up in ethanol production, our precious bourbon may also be threatened.

            1. You don’t think the Mexicans have reserves? You poor fool…

              1. They have reserves, which has been revealed before, but those reserves are mined.

                1. those reserves are mined

                  So gullible…

                  1. Who is being na?ve now, Auric?

        2. You ever see a commie take a drink of tequila?

          1. Trotsky was about to do a shot, but Stalin’s agents killed him with an ice axe. To prevent a commie from drinking tequila, which is un-communist.

      2. And none of them ever seem to end no matter what happens. We just keep crisising.

      3. No, the Y2K problem would have been a crisis had companies not actually treated it as a crisis prior to 1/1/2000.

        So in that case there really was an actual impending crisis that people took very seriously and thereby averted it.

        Outside of those 2 however there really haven’t been any real crises since the 70’s

        1. Well see, they wrote all this bank software, and, uh, to save space, they used two digits for the date instead of four. So, like, 98 instead of 1998? Uh, so I go through these thousands of lines of code and, uh… it doesn’t really matter. I uh, I don’t like my job, and, uh, I don’t think I’m gonna go anymore.

          1. They did that on purpose, so they’d all get paid more before 2000. Fuckers.

            It’s kind of weird that a life of manual labor was portrayed as better than getting overpaid for fixing a coding mistake.

            1. I’m not gonna lie, I actually enjoyed working in a grocery store. It wasn’t mentally challenging at all, but there was no stress, I kept active, and it was really easy to zone out while working and suddenly have it break time.

              The problem with it was that I earn about 5x as much for fixing code.

            2. Some people like manual labor and care less about money than being bored to death.

  8. But what most reports fail to note is that the ASCE isn’t exactly a disinterested party; on the question of whether or not we should spend more money on civil engineering, it is not entirely shocking to discover that a group of civil engineers thinks we ought to spend a whole lot more.

    *gaps* But that’s impossible! The peanut gallery here has assured me that studying math and science does something to one’s brain that automatically converts one into a libertarian, unlike those icky liberal arts!

    1. Civils were the most liberal engineers in my experience (lumping in environmentals under civils).

      1. Hey now.

        1. It’s probably cause they almost can’t get a job without it being for the government.

          Also cause they don’t have to learn real math.

      2. Actually, I don’t think it’s so much that CEs are more liberal, they just trend to advocate for more government spending on infrastructure. My experience is that they are not necessarily more “liberal” on other issues, like welfare or gay marriage etc. And in there advocacy for more government spending on infrastructure they are joined by road and bridge builders and the building trades unions.

        While the unions willingly join in lobbying for public works spending, their positions on almost all other issues are generally totally at odds with the other two partners in that team.

        1. Not in my experience. They really were more liberal on stuff like welfare and nanny statism.

    2. The peanut gallery here has assured me that studying math and science does something to one’s brain that automatically converts one into a libertarian, unlike those icky liberal arts!

      If that’s true, then they need to do some more math and take a look at how many libertarians there actually are and how many engineers there are. Though I think it is probably true that more STEM people are libertarian than, say, linguists. But that probably has more to do with personality types than anything.

  9. I’ve looked at this issue before, and his numbers line up with what I’ve seen. Even people who say that we need more infrastructure ought to admit that by our own metrics things have been getting better, and we spend in line with other countries and historically.

    As far as transit goes, we get a lot less for our spending than other countries. Buy America and Davis-Bacon is part of that, along with simply a lack of insistence on getting work done well and caring about costs.

    1. we get a lot less for our spending than other countries

      By what metric?

      Do you mean results or jobs. Because I’m sure that when politicians are involved in spending, maximizing employment at the cost of final product is a real consideration.

  10. Surely a first: an article on infrastructure that doesn’t use the word “crumbling”.

    1. I was starting to think of it as one word: “crumblinginfrastructure”.

      1. “Crumblingcommitmenttolimitedgovernment,” i.e., that piece of parchment crumbles a little more every day.

  11. “the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.”

    The same structurally deficient bridges that are ownes and operated by government, not private concerns, and paid for (or not, apparently), with tax money that has been funneled into politicians’ pet projects and handouts and new programs etc? I’m sorry, but fuck you, cut spending. And then spend what you have left ofln the basic duties of government.

  12. The roads around my building have gone from asphalt death trap to beautiful concrete smoothness, apparently complete with upgraded sewer, fiber optics lines, etc., as required by the stimulus that funded it. Politics is local. You guys better hope people don’t realize where all the improvements they’re seeing in their cities came from.

  13. “But as Bloomberg’s Evan Soltas argues today, the idea that the U.S. is in desperate need of higher spending is something of a myth: ”

    Bullshit, you just quoted 20% of bridges being deficient. We should be striving for zero bridges that are deficient, not be ok with 20%.

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