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Bridge Collapse Shows Nation Needs Infrastructure Work

The collapse of the Minnesota interstate bridge, coupled with the explosion of a steam tunnel in Manhattan, should arouse the country to the need for massive infrastructure investment — and reform of the way it’s financed. [IMGCAP(1)]

It’s a miracle that more people weren’t killed and injured in the two instances — or that a major part of America hasn’t experienced an electrical blackout, that two planes haven’t collided in crowded skies or that levees haven’t crumbled as in New Orleans.

Urgent attention will be paid for a few weeks to America’s highway bridges — 15 percent to 25 percent of which are believed to be structurally deficient — because of the collapse in Minneapolis.

But attention ought to be paid in a bigger way to the deficiencies in America’s highways, its electric grid, railways, airports, waterways and urban utilities. They all are clogged, inefficient, a sap on the nation’s productivity and competitiveness — and, in some cases, dangerous.

What’s needed is bipartisan action. Republicans, starting with President Bush, have to agree to spend more money and increase taxes, especially the gasoline tax. Democrats need to convince environmentalists to stop blocking needed projects and agree to let the private sector have a greater role in building public infrastructure.

As part of the New America Foundation’s compelling report “Ten Big Ideas for a New America,” NAF fellow Sherle Schwenninger noted that from 1950 to 1970, the U.S. devoted 3 percent of its gross domestic product to infrastructure but since 1980 has spent less than 2 percent.

A percent of GDP amounts to $140 billion a year in current dollars that the U.S. is not spending to keep its economy growing. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates national infrastructure needs double that — $1.6 trillion over a five-year period.

Schwenninger proposed that the U.S. government needs a capital budget to fund infrastructure rather than relying on separate trust funds and appropriations to pay for various projects.

Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters told me in an interview that only 60 percent of federal highway funds actually are spent on “core” needs — highways and bridges — while 40 percent is devoted to projects such as historic bridges, bike paths and anti-obesity programs to encourage children to walk to school.

In 2005, the ASCE issued a report card on infrastructure that actually gave bridges a C grade, higher than other categories, because from 2000 to 2003, the percentage of the nation’s 590,750 bridges rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete decreased slightly, from 28.5 percent to 27.1 percent.

However, the report said it would cost $9.4 billion a year for 20 years to eliminate all bridge deficiencies. “Long-term underinvestment is compounded by the lack of a federal transportation program,” it said.

Roads received a D grade. “Poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists $54 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, $275 per motorist,” the ASCE said.

“Americans spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, at a cost of $63.2 billion a year to the economy,” while total investment in road construction of $60 billion “is well below the $94 billion needed to improve transportation infrastructure conditions nationally.”

The aviation situation got a D-plus because the ASCE judged that “gridlock on America’s runways eased from crisis levels earlier in the decade due to reduced demand and recent modest funding increases.” But tell that to travelers stranded in airports this summer, the worst yet for delays and canceled flights.

The ASCE also declared that “since 1998, the number of unsafe dams has risen by 33 percent to more than 3,500” and that “America faces a shortfall of $11 billion annually to replace aging water facilities and comply with safe drinking standards.” Federal funding levels were 10 percent of needs, the ASCE said.

The report gave a D grade to energy investment, declaring that “the U.S. power transmission system is in urgent need of modernization. Growth in electricity demand has not been matched by investment in new power plants.”

The freight railway industry, the ASCE said, needs to spend nearly $200 billion over the next 20 years to maintain existing infrastructure and expand for freight growth, and intercity passenger rail upgrades should be $60 billion.

Peters agreed in our interview that the East Coast rail corridor needs to be upgraded for both freight and high-speed passenger traffic, though she said passenger routes on less-used cross-country lines should be dropped.

Peters made a special appeal for public-private partnerships — opposed by Democrats on ideological grounds — to allow states to contract with private companies to build roads and charge tolls to pay for them. She said it’s “a good way to increase efficiency and bring sorely needed capital to the table to meet transportation demand.”

Meantime, however, the Bush administration has consistently shortchanged infrastructure spending. In 2003, House Republicans and Democrats wanted to increase transportation spending by $375 billion over five years — the level recommended by Bush’s own Transportation Department — but the administration threatened a veto if spending went over $247 billion, finally agreeing to $287 billion.

This year, the administration again is threatening a veto because the Democrats’ Transportation appropriations bill is $635 million over his request.

The Minneapolis bridge collapse should produce not only a bipartisan agreement to provide emergency aid to rebuild that structure but also an overall reconsideration of transportation funding and deficiencies in all the nation’s infrastructure.

It should not take a catastrophe — Katrina-style flooding, a regional blackout or a tunnel collapse — to convince Republicans to spend and tax as needed and Democrats to say yes to development and open up to free enterprise.

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