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Our Infrastructure Is Not 'Crumbling.' Repeat: Our Infrastructure Is Not 'Crumbling'

The number of structurally deficient bridges, never high to begin with, has been dropping over the past 30 years.

One of the great myths of American politics, no matter who is president and no matter who runs Congress, is that our infrastructure is "crumbling." Former President Barack Obama repeatedly warned us about our "crumbling infrastructure." President Donald Trump now tells us that our infrastructure is "crumbling." The next president is going to hatch a giant plan to fix our crumbling infrastructure as well, because most voters want to believe infrastructure is crumbling.

The infrastructure is not crumbling. Ask someone about infrastructure and his thoughts will probably wander to the worst pothole-infested road he traverses rather than the hundreds of roads he drives on that are perfectly safe and smooth. That's human nature.

So "crumbling infrastructure" peddlers play on this concern by habitually agonizing over things like the impending outbreak of tragic bridge collapses that will kill thousands. They bring up tragedies like the 2007 disaster with the Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis even though, according to federal investigators, the collapse was due to a design flaw rather than decaying infrastructure. Many outlets and politicians simply ignore the inconvenient fact that the rare fatality involving infrastructure typically has nothing to do with "crumbling" and everything to do with natural elements or human error.

In reality, the number of structurally deficient bridges, never high to begin with, has been dropping over the past 30 years despite all the hand-wringing. The overall number has fallen from over 22 percent in 1992 to under 10 percent in 2016. According to a Reuters analysis of those bridges, only 4 percent of those that carry significant traffic need repairs. Of the nation's 1,200 busiest bridges, the number of those structurally deficient falls to under 2 percent—or fewer than 20 bridges in the entire country. And none of those bridges need repair to save them from collapse.

That has never stopped politicians from fearmongering, however. "Our roads and bridges are falling apart; our airports are in Third World condition," Trump claimed during his 2016 campaign. Yet as the Heritage Foundation's Michael Sargent points out, the percentage of airport runways deemed as poor has fallen from 4 percent in 2004 to 2 percent in 2016. And for the past 30 years, the number of "acceptable" or above roads has remained relatively consistent at approximately 85 percent.

Perhaps because they're constantly being told that America's roads are on the verge of disintegrating into dust, some voters aren't aware that federal, state and local governments spent $416 billion on transportation and water infrastructure in 2014—around the same 2.4 percent of gross domestic product they've been spending for decades. About $165 billion of that $416 billion, incidentally, was spent on highways. (This doesn't count the bipartisan Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act of 2015, which added another $305 billion over five years.)

It's also worth remembering that when liberals talk about infrastructure, they don't necessarily mean roads or bridges or airports or water-processing plants. They mean expensive social engineering projects and Keynesian job-creation schemes. In 2017, Senate Democrats unveiled their own $1 trillion infrastructure plan, claiming the additional spending would create 15 million jobs over 10 years. Despite years of hearing otherwise, there is still no evidence that infrastructure bills create self-sustaining jobs—or any jobs, for that matter.

According to a 2010 Associated Press analysis, the first 10 months of Obama's economic stimulus plan showed virtually no effect on local unemployment rates, which rose and fell regardless of money spent on infrastructure projects. It barely even helped construction jobs. What it did do was fund cronyistic ventures and debt-padding waste.
Around $90 billion of Obama's infrastructure-heavy "stimulus" plan went to green energy companies (many of which are now in bankruptcy) rather than repairing bridges. Another $1.3 billion went to subsidize Amtrak rather than repairing the roads you actually drive on. Another $8 billion went to various other rail projects (with a priority on high-speed rail) rather than highways or byways or your local street.

Now, though one expects Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure bill to focus more on traditional projects, the case for the new spending is predicated on the same chilling and misleading rhetoric we've been hearing for years. Although still nebulous, the White House's plan apparently features some attempt to reduce the regulatory burden that the private sector must wade through before gaining approval for building permits. This is a positive step considering the vast majority of infrastructure is still built by the private sector. This should be a goal of the administration with or without the massive infrastructure bill.

How we fund the infrastructure, and who builds these projects, is certainly a debate worth having. But it's a debate worth having without ever using the word "crumbling."

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  • Rebel Scum||

    Having seen a large number of bridge inspection reports of bridges along I-64 in VA, I can say that many are barely serviceable and due for some serious maintenance or replacement.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I-64 is the worst. That is all.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    There are no maintenance crews available to work on the bridges, because they've all spent the last 30 years adding a lane between Newport News and Williamsburg.

  • Badseed78||

    True was born and raised in Hampton roads spent 36yrs haven't been back in 3 yrs doesn't sound like it's any better go up in some Northern States it's worse. Buffalo is horrible entire outer rebar cages exposed on almost every train tressell. Cincinnati I-75 across the Ohio River upper deck looks like it might go any day I try to avoid that one at all costs.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    The number of structurally deficient bridges, never high to begin with, has been dropping over the past 30 years.

    SO BRIDGES ARE DROPPING LIKE FLIES AND SOMEHOW IT'S NOT A PROBLEM?!?!?!?

    This is just more anti-road nonsense from Libertarians. We need a OBL hot take on this issue.

  • Rhywun||

    I'm guessing the author hasn't visited a Blue state or city in a while or heaven forbid partaken in a "non-traditional" conveyance like the NYC subway. Not that throwing Fedbucks around is going to solve anything without addressing the root causes behind the obvious problems in those areas.

  • CE||

    Better yet, fly to Korea and land at Incheon Airport and take a taxi to downtown Seoul.
    Then fly back to LAX and take a taxi to downtown Los Angeles.
    There's no comparison, and it's not favorable for California.

  • ||

    Not that throwing Fedbucks around is going to solve anything

    This is the thing. The Feds aren't going to come repair potholes in Oakland. They're going to pay some well-connected Maryland-based national contractor to repair bridges in rural Wyoming that carry several dozen cars a year.

    They point to crumbling infrastructure that isn't theirs and use it as an excuse to ask you to pay for entirely unrelated infrastructure that will consume funds that you could have used locally to repair the crumbling infrastructure they're using as an excuse to take that money away from you.

    In five years, when that infrastructure is still crumbling because the Feds took all your money, they'll point to that crumbling infrastructure again and use it as an excuse to take even more of your money.

  • Rhywun||

    If we have to have this giant pot of money, it seems to me the only right way to go about this is to divvy it up by state population and let them do whatever the hell they want with it.

  • ||

    That would make a certain amount of sense, but the red states would never go for it.

  • Cy||

    A company I moonlight for tried to get contracts to fix the Subway/commuter signal systems after Hurricane Sandy. Needless to say, we didn't have union cards and weren't allowed to submit bids. When they passed the "relief package" I couldn't help but feel more disgusted at the blue states than usual.

  • CE||

    Of course the Golden Gate Bridge isn't crumbling. It was built back in 1933. They don't build them like they used to.

  • ||

    It was the only bridge in the Bay Area not to suffer any damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

  • vek||

    Yup. When I hear stuff about bridges needing to be replaced and such, I always think of the Brooklyn Bridge, Golden Gate etc... If we assume the universe isn't going to end in 30 or 50 years... Why should we design structures to not last as long as possible, given cost considerations? It can't be cheaper to build 3 bridges from scratch than to just build one well built one that will last the same life span. You can do the math to figure out the bets bang for your buck, and I'd wager my life it isn't the way we've been doing it since the 50s.

  • TxJack 112||

    Infrastructure is deteriorating because that is what happens to concrete and steel over time. Attempts to paint steel only slow the decay. Pollution affect concrete over time by eating into it when it rains. Denying there is a problem is just idiotic. The only reason the Minneapolis bridge collapse is the design was not made to carry the weigh load of the traffic that was using it. There was also deterioration in the structure which made the bridge weaker. Bridges built 50 years ago were not designed to handle the amount of traffic many do now because engineers could not contemplate the amount of growth in the US or how populations would move. Are you really going to argue that southern engineers in the 1950s anticipated the mass migration south of workers when manufacturing in the rust belt and northeast collapsed in the 1980s? Look at the recent train derailments. Those are all because we are running trains at speeds the antiquated rail system was not designed to handle.

  • ||

    Infrastructure is deteriorating because that is what happens to concrete and steel over time.

    Yes, but the amount of time that actually takes makes a difference in your spending projections.

    Attempts to paint steel only slow the decay.

    We're actually pretty good at coating steel so it doesn't "decay," and at knowing how often that needs to be done in order to maintain it. Privately owned and maintained concrete-and-steel buildings built over a century ago are still just fine. Government infrastructure owners tend to suck at this because they have no stake in maintaining infrastructure (but they do have incentives to rebuild things periodically). But that kind of works against your overall point.

    Denying there is a problem is just idiotic.

    You're missing the point. The Feds don't own all of the infrastructure. Unless these bridges you're pointing to in the South are on Interstates, they're not Federal property, and the Feds launching a yuge infrastructure program only diverts funds from addressing these issues.

    Just saying "infrastructure is crumbling" isn't an argument for a massive Federal spending program.

  • ||

    Dammit, the link was supposed to be a picture of the Roman Coliseum, which is cast-in-place concrete that is over 2,000 years old and still standing.

    Yes, stone and concrete aren't technically permanent, but they get pretty darn close for practical purposes.

  • ||

    I guess we can't do embedded links anymore? Just google the Roman Coliseum - unless you were raised by wolves, you've already seen it, anyway.

  • MikeP2||

    It's a different kind of concrete. Roman concrete is 'self-healing', with minerals recrystallizing across cracks. It's a unique formulation to the local geologic chemistry.

    Modern concrete does not do that, and all modern concrete has a very finite lifespan.

  • ||

    It's a different kind of concrete.

    Yes. Everyone who knows anything about concrete knows that. In your rush to pedantry (in which you actually misunderstand what makes Roman concrete extra strong, you missed my point. Modern concrete not having the ridiculous durability of Roman concrete doesn't mean modern concrete is particle board. 100-year-old concrete bridges around my area are still standing just fine. A sea-wall made of modern concrete might have a lifespan of 50 years or so, but a concrete structure in a reasonably dry and non-salty environment will last a good long time.

    "A very finite lifespan" is a disingenuous way to describe modern concrete.

  • ||

    And I say this as someone who is currently engaged in a project to demolish a concrete-and-steel hospital building built over 50 years ago. At the moment, I wish modern concrete were as fragile as you claim!

  • MikeP2||

    I didnt misunderstand anything, you dolt. Perhaps you cant understand the link you sent, which mirrors what i said.

    Your comparison of roman concrete structures to modern concrete structures as an example of their lifespan was either ignorant of the fundamental differences, or a casual disregard for truth to make your assinine point.

    and no one is talking about buildings. Infrastructure is the topic, which involves things exposed to the elements. 50years for concrete structures these day, often less. Often quite a lot of upkeep.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    "" The Feds don't own all of the infrastructure.""

    But it's easy to blame them when you spent all your budget on other stuff.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""Those are all because we are running trains at speeds the antiquated rail system was not designed to handle."'

    Was it that, or was someone not obeying the speed limit?

    Wasn't the last one an improper switch position?

  • ||

    Wasn't the last one an improper switch position?

    No - you clearly didn't get the memo. The switch was in the improper position because the evil private rail corporations haven't upgraded their infrastructure, which is why privately managed freight trains, which make up the bulk of volume in the system, are constantly running into each other. The Amtrak trains are lucky to be skating through as often as they are.

  • DaveSs||

    NTSB said the I35 bridge collapsed due to a design flaw.

  • DaveSs||

    That is, the design was not even sufficient for when the bridge was built, let alone taking into account additional weight from later repaves and modifications, or additional traffic load.

  • Cy||

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    You clearly don't know much about railroads.

  • MikeP2||

    So you don't like the word "crumbling"?

    How about "outdated"? Or "inadequate"?

    Libertarians should be arguing about who pays for common use things like roads and powerlines, not the laughably refutable premise that "no, everything is fine, we don't need to invest in infrastructure".

  • ||

    Libertarians should be arguing about who pays for common use things like roads and powerlines, not the laughably refutable premise that "no, everything is fine, we don't need to invest in infrastructure".

    You're not paying attention. There has been much discussion in this very thread about who pays for common use things like roads and powerlines.

    You know you doesn't pay for those things, by and large? The Federal Government.

  • Loss of Reason||

    The author hasn't seen CA or read the infrastructurereportcard.org that states 10% of the bridges are unsound.

    David also seems to miss that infrastructure isn't just roads and bridges - it's power lines, sewer, water, rail, and probably most youngens think Internet.

  • ||

    power lines

    Which are maintained by power companies.

    sewer

    Which are maintained by local wastewater districts, often in public-private partnerships.

    water

    Which is typically maintained by a local utility district.

    rail

    Which is maintained by privately held freight carriers.

    and probably most youngens think Internet.

    Which is maintained by your local ISP.

    What does any of this have to do with a Federal infrastructure spending package?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    David, drive the USA. A lot of badly maintained roads.

    The politicians spend most of our taxpayer money on other things that one of their main reasons for existing- roads.

  • vek||

    Now I won't argue FedGov is the way to do it... But LOTS of infrastructure is fucked all over the place! In Seattle, one of the wealthiest cities in the world nowadays, AND who has had the local city revenue (and budget) DOUBLE in the last 4-5 years... They STILL won't fix the pot holes that are found everywhere.

    What they do is waste it on stupid things that aren't needed, like adding speed bumps to random roads arbitrarily, putting in physical dividers for bike lanes (which they also remove car lanes for!), horrible public transportation plans, etc.

    I've been around, and roads are fucked. So are many other things. FedGov won't fix the problem because it is mostly inept local/state government. But we should be fixing this stuff. Many states, especially southern states, have vaaastly better roads and the like because they spend their tax money on shit that actually makes sense.

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    50 billion for choo choos in Seattle might have something to do with that.

  • vek||

    Yup... I just felt the fuck out of that one when I registered my 2 cars at the new rates... Fucking communist assholes! I can't wait to move away from this place!

  • SaguaroJack||

    Well, David, you haven't driven the roads and bridges that I have in the last 20-30 years. Some time ago in Kansas City, a truck literally fell thru a "chuck hole" in a bridge, fell onto the highway below and killed several people. Crumbling? Probably not. But definitely in serious need of attention. I've since moved out West where the more affluent states can afford better highway maintenance but it's still needed.

    Just because infrastructure isn't "crumbling," whatever that means, does not mean it's okay. America's infrastructure is NOT okay.

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    You missed the point. As he stated we are spending the same% of GDP, if we quit blowing it on stupid shit like bike paths and solar boondoggles like Ivanpah and Elon Musk's ego trips we'd be in better shape.

    Go back and see how much actual "infrastructure" got built with Obama's trillion dollars. Most went to subsidizing government employees that states and localities couldn't afford and eventually laid off when the Fed dollars ran out.

    If you don't think Trump and company can't blow a trillion Fedbucks just as fast you aren't paying attention. The only difference is which set of cronies benefits more.

  • vek||

    All true... But there is a small possibility that at least he will direct MORE of it to actual useful shit, like roads. He's not a dirty hippie, so even if plenty of kick backs go down, at least some roads or bridges might be built at 2-10x the cost they should have been! LOL

  • Devastator||

    To say that the 1 trillion proposed during Obama's tenure didn't create jobs is ludicrous. Someone had to do the work and unemployment was high. So you do the math. However, it didn't create many permanent jobs, however. There is a huge difference.

  • Liberty Lover||

    our infrastructure MUST BE crumbling. I had three special assessments just in front of my house in three years. Sidewalks, roadway and sewer line! First they did the sidewalks, then tore them up to do the roadway, and then tore up the roadway to do the sewer lines. Now my brand new sidewalks and roadway suck! City Planning?

  • Shoreline1||

    Seems to me that we should spend the money on defense. I heard NK was on the verge of attacking Iowa, just like Iraq and Afghanistan was going to do before we spent billions stopping them, in the nick of time I'm sure. I can kind of feel those icbm's pointing at me now. Defense spending or infra-structure spending, either way those getting kickbacks should be pleased at the prospects.

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