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New Infrastructure Strategy: Yes, Build — But

Neal Peirce / Jan 22 2011

For Release Sunday, January 23, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceYes, build — but.

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

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  1. Neal Peirce
    Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    A reader from the New York area sends this comment:

    You’re right about the overall infrastructure issue but I would disagree with you about Chris Christie’s rationale for killing the tunnel project. The cost overruns were both manageable and with Ray LaHood’s help, being managed.

    In any event this was just a fig leaf for the Governor’s real motivation: grabbing $1.8 billion in Port Authority funds that had been committed to the tunnel project and using them to fill the hole in the state’s bankrupt highway trust fund. Christie closed the circle last week when he announced his decision to use these funds for this purpose. The underlying problem is that New Jersey has the third lowest state gas tax in the country, and Christie –as well as his Republican and Democratic predecessors—have neglected to raise the tax to finance the state’s pressing infrastructure needs.

    It’s ironic that for the cost of a Grande Latte a week New Jersey motorists could have had first rate infrastructure, reduced congestion and greater commuting choices. But God forbid that some politician would threaten to take away that Latte! And oh yes, they’ll be sending this money instead to Saudi Arabia this time next year, when gasoline prices increase, as predicted by the US Energy Department. And commuters won’t have a decent transit commute alternative when gas prices rise, courtesy of Governor Christie.

    Christie’s short-sighted decision to cancel the much needed tunnel project has emboldened Republican governors and the new House leadership in Washington to consider cancelling important infrastructure projects across the country. This is not a good portent for a country that is competing with European and Asian countries that are investing trillions in new airports, seaports, high-speed rail and other infrastructure systems. Instead of being the most efficient country to move people and goods, as we were in the late 20th century, we’ll be one of the least efficient places to do this in the 21st. Why should we choose to undercut America’s competitiveness in this way? Hopefully President Obama will begin to speak out on this issue.

  2. Posted January 22, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget, too, that some infrastructure fails because of inadequate upkeep (that is, making sure the bridge joints are oiled, etc.); and in the age of cutbacks this is a serious problem that could be easily, relatively inexpensively, solved.

  3. Posted January 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Obviously we will need a bunch more bridges to hit the water before the people will vote for more gas tax to fix them….Hey i don’t live in Minnesota, so why should i care?!

  4. Neal Peirce
    Posted January 23, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Comment from an Engineer:

    The subject column was what I have been advocating during over my 40 some years of civil engineering practice.

    As you mentioned, repairs do not provide ” ribbon-cutting opportunities for our office holders: be a state bridge engineer, congressman, local government bridge engineers, and so on.

    I am not sure if my letter will be read, so I will skip much of my discussions why we need to repair more bridges, not selected replacements for ” ribbon-cutting “.

    As a result, our federal funding formulas favor replacements over rehabilitations/repairs. Our common knowledge tells us that infrastructures is one of our lifelines for economic survival.

    As an example, The Penn DOT alone estimates that upwards of $11 billion will be needed to repair /replacement of 5,935 structurally-deficient bridges in the Commonwealth. If the Penn DOT insists on the replacements of these bridges( but not repairs), only a handful of these deficient bridges will be made safe. Delaying repairs on these unsafe bridges will risk the public safety and also the Commonwealth’s economic climate.

    There are methods for increasing the load carrying capacity of aged steel truss bridges-both through and deck trusses and also forextending the life of truss bridges economically and expeditiously with no extended interruptions of bridge traffic.

    These methods eliminate the non-redundant characteristics of truss bridges. Most metal truss bridges are no-redundant, fracture critical structures, e.g., failure of one member or one joint ( connection) would theoretically cause a total collapse of the bridge.

    The tragic collapse of the I-35 W Bridge in Minneapolis on August 1, 2007 may have been prevented if this truss bridge was reinforced with a well known method ( ALL state and federal bridge people are aware of this method). I was interviewed on August 1, 2007 for the evening news by an NBC affiliate in Chicago. In the news, I declared that the collapse was due to failures of joints in the deck truss[ I had never seen the bridge, not even to date]. My declaration was confirmed in the January 11, 2008 INTERIM REPORT Federal Highway Administration and also in the November 8, 2008 Final Report by the NTSB.

    The collapse of this deck truss bridge was due to the failure of gusset plates at the U10 & L11.

    Jai B. Kim, P.E., Ph.D.
    Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering
    Professor Emeritus
    Bucknell University

  5. Posted January 24, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Please expand on one concrete element in this article.

    “18,857 fracture-critical steel deck-truss bridges”

    Where are they and who (or what entity) is responsible? I would be most grateful the next time I’m out and about.

  6. Jerry Kolasinski
    Posted January 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Maybe its a good time to re-consider the Interstate highways that bisect our cities. They were the originators of urban flight and the basis of urban segregation. Rather than re-build, repair or replace them, convert them into “somewhat accessible” boulevards or parkways. Most cities have such routes now and they could be up-dated at a lesser cost than keeping the urban-destructive Interstate highways freely flowing. This would also free up some very valuable land in or near the urban centers for some lucrative development and possibly provide a ready made route for light rail systems. Actually, there are lots of possibilities if we just got rid of those intrusive and very expensive urban freeways.

  7. Posted January 24, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    First, I’d like to commend Neal for pointing out some obvious truths about our nation’s infrastructure, and the need for a coordinated and thoughtful strategy for investment. As a regional economic development organization in Masssachusetts, I’d also like to point out that some of these truths are being acted upon by state governments. Here in Massachusetts, Governor Patrick and the Legislature recognized the need for state leadership on bridge repair, and enacted a comprehensive $3 Billion Accelerated Bridge Repair program to identify the most pressing needs, prioritize state investment, and provide bond financing to address those needs. Its been underway for two years now, and has been making steady and needed progress – details are online at
    . Similar commonsense leadership from our federal government is long overdue!

  8. Brian
    Posted January 26, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    True, politicians love to cut ribbons. But engineers love to costly standards that do little for safety. For example, there is no evidence that 12-foot lanes are safer than 11-foot lanes for speeds under 60mph. So why are we spending so much on building extra feet into projects? For that matter, why are streets or lower-speed roads even designed as highways, such as clear zones and super-elevation? If we were to focus on structural integrity for true safety, instead of passive safety, the dollar would go a lot farther.

  9. Linda Guthrie
    Posted February 7, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    The most important and difficult part of the infrastructure issue will be funding. Communities and municipalities across the nation are likely to lose their Recreational Trail Program (RTP) funding, (which creates transportation equity – 30% of people are either to old or too young to drive, others just prefer to walk or bike) to re-prioritized transportation needs for the automobile. The growing number of shared paths and trails that have proliferated under the FHWA since the 1991 landmark legislation that spawned the RTP connect residential areas with retail areas, neighborhoods with schools, and
    homes with work — all the while creating healthier communities of people who get up and move. The first lady’s President’s Council on Fitness initiative to tackle obesity is called “Let’s Move” and encourages children and adults to get up and move for 30 minutes a day. Trails add value to communities (your article on community attachment and local economic growth). But, it’ll all be gone in one swipe because the infrastructure is crumbling, even though walking and biking on shared use paths is all good: good exercise, creates healthy communities, efficient, clean, no fossil fuels, takes up little space, inexpensive, adds value to neighborhoods and homes, attracts growth to communities and works great with mass transit. Without trails, biking and walking are just not convenient in a landscape dominated by cars. Redirecting transportation equity funds will shortchange the nation by increasing our dependence on cars and fossil fuels, and helping deepen the problems of pollution and climate change. I hope RTP can survive the infrastructure funding dilemma.