For Release Sunday, January 23, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group
That’s my reaction to the latest appeals for America to get busy fixing its infrastructure deficit (estimated at $2-trillion) in safe and durable bridges along with roads, water and sewage systems, levees, dams, power grids, gas lines, tunnels, railroads and more.
“Yes build” makes sense because decaying and inadequate infrastructure is a clear threat to our daily safety, to our economic security, and to our global competitiveness. The 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis was just one of a series of catastrophic bridge failures of recent decades. Lives are lost, lifelong injuries suffered, and then the ricochet effects set in as roadways, the arteries of our economy, get closed off with often-prolonged detours and significant loss of commerce.
In a perplexing way, Americans seem ready to say “yes build” (or “yes repair”) after major disasters. But then, eying the daunting bills for replacements, federal and state legislators routinely fail to raise the taxes or appropriate the funds to catch up. Latest bugaboo: fear of raising the gas tax, either federal or local.
In the process, the United States falls behind in global competition for strong and reliable infrastructure. We’re willing to spend $100 billion a year on a debatable venture like the Afghanistan conflict, but expend a mere 2 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on infrastructure while China expends 9 percent and the European Union 5 percent. Other rising economic powers — India, Brazil, Mexico and others — are also investing significantly more than the U.S. — leaving us on a path, says Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) “towards a secondary competitive status.”
But — we need to add a big “but.” In fact, several buts.
For example — If we raise road or bridge money, does it go to repair — “fix it first”? Or rather to marginally necessary new projects (like widening rural roads to four lanes) that provide ribbon-cutting opportunities for officeholders but create little substantive improvement?
Next “but”: Do we fix the most dangerous situations first? Infrastructure expert Barry B. LePatner offers a searing criticism of Minnesota’s failure to repair the I-35W bridge while there was still time in his new book, “Too Big to Fall” (Foster Publishing).
The I-35W bridge, he explains, did not shudder, buckle and collapse during a summer rush hour, plunging 111 vehicles into the Mississippi River and sending 13 people to their deaths, for the reason a National Transportation Safety Board panel later reported — because of a simple design error undetected at the time of its construction.
Rather, LePatner notes, the problem was first that the bridge was designed as “fracture-critical” — a process permitted during the post-World War II building boom (and until 1980) which means that failure of any one of a bridge’s structural members could trigger a sudden, catastrophic collapse of the entire structure.
And second, that the Minnesota Transportation Department ignored repeated warnings from outside consultants that the bridge, bearing significantly heavier weights than at its time of construction, needed strengthening to avoid collapse if any element failed. Instead, they treated it as a safe bridge for the 160,000 cars and trucks crossing it daily.
There are 18,857 fracture-critical steel deck-truss bridges still in the United States today. The average bridge in the country is over 50 years old. LePatner urges creation of a national clearinghouse showing extensive bridge information, equipped to send out immediate warnings to close similar at-risk bridges.
Highway engineers need to be freed, he urges, to exercise their professional judgment on bridges and other hazard-prone infrastructure “free of political or financial constraints” — a process he charges was clearly missing in Minnesota.
A next cure: It’s time, LePatner suggests, to go beyond visual inspections of bridges for rust, corrosion or cracks to pinpoint less obvious internal decay. The obvious method: deploying sophisticated sensor systems to detect faults early. It’s ironic, he notes, for a nation “smitten with technology” to use sophisticated technology rarely if at all to protect varieties of its costly infrastructure systems.
America does need a national infrastructure bank to start closing its massive infrastructure gap, says LePatner. But he introduces a fascinating last “but.” Don’t tolerate, he argues, the typical overrun-prone construction contracts that so frequently drive up costs — sometimes the result of uninformed government contracting offices, or on the other side sometimes “unscrupulous” contractors. Instead, he suggests, governments should build clear contingency limits into big-scale contracts in advance, insisting on teams of architects, engineers and contractors to pin down every element of design before final bidding to start construction.
With such protections in place, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might not have vetoed the badly-needed new tunnel connecting New Jersey with Manhattan. Indeed, it’s time to get much bolder — and smarter — about funding infrastructure. It’s vital for our future — no buts about it.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is email@example.com.
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