Infrastructure Madness by Jack Shafer

Today’s article of the day comes from Slate Magazine:

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 your 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 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 deliver political rewards, not well-executed maintenance projects, 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. An April 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.

Jack Shafer is Slate‘s editor at large.

Published in: on April 22, 2009 at 6:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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More tolls, Let’s Privatize!

This from the Washington Times:

“Virginia currently has several toll systems set up, including the 14-mile Dulles Toll Road in Fairfax County, but Mr. Howell said more expansive efforts could lead to more state revenue and provide a potential replacement for the gas tax, which he referred to as a “dinosaur” funding source.

“We’re talking about leasing the concession to collect the tolls on those roads,” Mr. Howell said. “It can be a tough political argument to make, but it’s an argument worth making because it’s a sound political concept.

Public-private partnerships are becoming increasingly common as states grapple with a national infrastructure in need of repair: Florida is looking to lease a 78-mile toll road known as “Alligator Alley,” while Virginia itself has formed partnerships on projects like the Dulles Rail expansion and a $2 billion plan to install HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway.”

I say why stop there? Let’s privatize all of the roads. Many people complain about the quality of roads in America but nobody ever complains about the walking areas in shopping malls. When you walk from Macy’s to another store, you often do not encounter potholes or construction workers. Sure, you might say that cars put more of a wear and tear on roads than people on walkways.

But the fundamental truth is still there. The company who owns the mall has an incentive to keep problems from happening during working hours. They also have an incentive to make sure that they are always maintained. Of course, malls work differently and they do not have tolls. This is true but with today’s modern technologies it would be very easy to have speed passes that priced different times of the day. As we all know roads are a tragedy of the commons. This means that since is it free for anyone to use the road, everyone will use the road and slow traffic. If you made driver make economic decisions based upon prices in different parts of the day, you would have a more efficient outcome of traffic. I guarantee less congestion.

The rest is here.


Published in: on April 16, 2009 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Open Letter to Mothers Against Drunk Driving by Walter Block

This article of the day is an a piece from Walter Block’s new book via

Although I shall be criticizing you, even severely, please do not take this amiss. I mean your organization no harm. Quite the contrary. My two children, in their early twenties, are both new drivers. I would suffer more than I can tell you if anything were to happen to them as a result of drunken driving. I am thus a supporter of yours. I am on your side. Please take what I say as no more than friendly amendments to your plans and proposals. Some of the following critiques may sound harsh, but friends do not mince words with each other in life-and-death situations, and I would like you to consider me a friend of yours. We may disagree on means but certainly not on ends.


First, you must expand your scope of operations. While drunk driving is of course a major calamity on our nation’s roads, it is far from the only one. There are quite a few others, even besides the “big three” of speed, weather conditions, and driver error.[1] What difference does it really make if our children and loved ones die in a traffic fatality emanating from drunkenness or any of these other conditions? Happily there is no need to change even the MADD name if you adopt this suggestion. Only instead of the first “D” standing for “drunk” it could refer to “death,” as in Mothers Against Death Drivers. All of these things — alcohol, drugs, speeding, malfunctioning vehicles, badly engineered roads, weather conditions, whatever — are threats to our families’ lives. Why single out any one of them?

A possible defense of the status quo is to borrow a leaf from the economists and defend the present, limited, status of MADD on grounds of specialization and division of labor.[2] True, no one organization can do everything. Better to take on a limited agenda and do it well than to take on too much and accomplish little or nothing.

But this insight applies only when to take on additional tasks is to dilute the focus of an enterprise. If you truly oppose fatalities only from the single cause of alcoholism, well and good. MADD as presently constituted then needs no broadening of vision. But if your goal is decrease the senseless roadway slaughter of innocents which stems from any cause, which I strongly suspect is the case, then to include the contributions from other sources does not weaken the mission; on the contrary, it fortifies it.


My second suggestion is far more radical. Please hear me out. There are very important matters at stake. True, the highway fatality rates have been declining in recent years.[3] But 41,480, the number of people who perished as a result of improper automobile use in 1998, for example, is still far too high. Desperate circumstances require radical solutions. (more…)

Published in: on April 14, 2009 at 6:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Why politics cannot solve anything…

The Politico is reporting that environmentalist are butting heads with Democrats over the stimulus spending. Democrats want the money to go to roads and bridges while environmentalists believe that this will only cause more cars on the road. The environmentalists then cheered that the money was going to tax cuts and not transportation. Yes, I just said environmentalists cheered for tax cuts.

This is why Democrats cannot solve anything. They are made up of a bunch of minorities that join together to get what they want done. This seems like a smart plan because, other than unions, minority groups are on the rise. The problem is that they cannot get anything done because it is very hard to do the right thing without stepping on anyone’s toes. Therefore, they must only satisfy their groups in order to continually get elected.

This does not leave Republicans out in the cold. In fact, the Republicans often do the same thing but I believe it is done on an individual basis. People who support free trade are mostly Republicans and most of the time free trade helps corporations in the long run but hurts them in the short run. This is the same with unions who almost always oppose free trade. Free trade benefits the American people as a whole but only the President is elected by everyone and that is only roughly the case.

The simple fact is that all politicians are trying to maximize votes. This means that they have to pander to whomever will elect them. A Republican or Democrat can oppose tariffs but only if they do not have a large union in their district. Most of the unions are in the North and most of the Democrats are in the North, do I need to show the correlation past that? I do not know how to change the system but this is the key question that we must solve for the future.


Published in: on January 9, 2009 at 4:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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