The Real Threat to America’s Infrastructure

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The 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis led to a great hue and cry about the need to repair the nation’s infrastructure. Within days of the bridge’s failure, groups such as the American Society of Civil Engineers presented their lists of trillions of dollars worth of projects that are supposedly needed to bring infrastructure up to modern standards.

The nation’s media dutifully generated a crisis atmosphere by showing videos and photos of crumbling concrete and rusty steel bridges. “Nearly 30% of bridges in the United States are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” CBS News breathlessly reported. “You heard that right: one-third of the bridges in the United States should have a sign that says, ‘Use at your own risk.’ ”

Many politicians were quick to jump on this bandwagon. Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar quickly offered proposals to raise gas taxes anywhere from 5-40 cents per gallon in order to replace and repair bridges. As chair of the House Transportation Committee, he promised a gathering of steel company lobbyists that the next federal transportation bill would spend $550 billion over six years (the previous bill was only $285 billion). “We’re talking about a lot of steel,” he emphasized.

Barack Obama latched onto this issue in his presidential campaign, promising to spend $60 billion to rebuild national transportation infrastructure. When the economy tanked in September, Obama and various members of Congress started talking up an infrastructure bill aimed at stimulating the economy. With great fanfare, Congress passed this stimulus bill in February.

All this publicity and debate no doubt led most Americans to believe we are suffering some sort of infrastructure crisis and that the stimulus bill went far towards solving that crisis. Both these ideas are flat-out wrong. The crisis was entirely fabricated by special-interest groups seeking to attract more pork. Fully aware of that, Congress dedicated less than 20% of the $787 billion stimulus bill to infrastructure – and much if not most of that will go to new construction, not repair or replacement of existing infrastructure.

The first clue that the infrastructure crisis was phony is the report of the National Transportation Safety Board on the Minneapolis bridge collapse. The bridge failed, the report found, because of a design or construction flaw: certain parts were one-half inch thinner than they should have been. The board was unable to determine whether the designers had specified the wrong parts or the builders had substituted cheaper parts to save money, but it was clear about one thing: no amount of bridge maintenance would have detected or fixed the problem.

What about the “one-third of the bridges in the United States” that are risky to drive upon? That’s based on Department of Transportation reports that 12.1% of roadway bridges are structurally deficient and 13.3% are functionally obsolete. Note that CBS News rounded up the total – less than 26% – to “almost 30%,” which it immediately inflated to “one third” (which, of course, is 33.3%).

At most, however, the real number was 12.1%. “Function- ally obsolete” bridges are not in any danger of falling down; they merely have narrow lanes, inadequate overhead clearances, overly sharp on- and off-ramps, or other outdated design features. These bridges pose no risk to auto drivers unless the driveJ;’s themselves drive recklessly.

The 12.1% “structurally deficient” bridges have suffered enough deterioration or damage that their load-carrying abilities are lower than when they were built. But that still doesn’t mean they are about to fall down; though they may be closed to heavy loads, the most serious problem is that they cost more to maintain than other bridges.

A close look at the data reveals that more than 90% of structurally deficient bridges have local, not state or federal, ownership; and more than 80% are rural. The average structurally deficient bridge is also less than three-fourths the size of the average bridge in good condition. In other words, we are not talking about the George Washington Bridge; the vast majority are small rural bridges that receive little use. Moreover, far from being a growing crisis, the number of structurally deficient bridges has declined by nearly 50% since 1990.

Bridge collapses because of poor maintenance are rare, and none has taken place in the United States in the past 20 years. Of 20 notable bridge collapses in the past 50 years, nearly half were caused by collisions with ships or barges, motor vehicles that caught on fire, or- in one case- an airplane.

Most Americans believe we are suffering some sort of infrastructure crisis and that the stimulus bill went far towards solving that crisis. Both these ideas are flat-out wrong.

 

Three resulted from earthquakes or a tornado, two – including the Minneapolis bridge – failed because of design or construction flaws, and one was overloaded when someone drove a 90-ton vehicle onto a bridge rated to hold 17.5 tons.

Between 1960 and 1990, four bridge collapses were blamed partly on maintenance issues. The 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, led to radical changes in bridge maintenance and inspection procedures. Yet the collapse itself was caused more by design flaws than by lack of maintenance. The 1928 bridge was an unusual design, known as a chain suspension bridge. A notable flaw in the design was that a failure of any component would lead to a catastrophic failure of the entire bridge.

The bridge had been inspected and found structurally safe just two years before the collapse. After the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board found that corrosion had led to a minute crack in one of the thousands of pieces holding the bridge up. The corrosion, the board concluded, was inaccessible to visual inspection and could not have been detected by then-state-of-the-art inspection methods, unless

Legislators prefer “ribbons over brooms,” that is, they prefer to fund capital projects over maintenance.

 

the part had been disassembled. The collapse, which killed 46 people, led to an increase in the frequency and intensity of bridge inspections. But, perhaps more important, it led to the closure of the only other chain-suspension bridges in existence and to requirements that future bridges be designed with built-in redundancies so that, if one part fails, other parts will still bear the load.

Despite stepped-up inspections, three more bridge col- lapses in the 1980s were blamed on maintenance failures. Connecticut’s Mianus River Bridge failed in 1983, killing three people. Analysis showed that openings for draining water had been paved over a few years before. Collected water led to corrosion that should have been detected by bridge inspectors. But Connecticut had only 12 inspectors, responsible for 3,425 bridges. Better maintenance procedures and inspections could have prevented the collapse.

The collapse of a New York Thruway (1-90) bridge over Schoharie Creek, which killed ten people, was also blamed on poor maintenance. A 1955 flood had removed rip-rap protect- ing the bridge supports, and that rip-rap was never replaced. When the creek flooded again in 1987, the unprotected supports were undermined. Finally, in 1989 a U.S. 51 highway bridge in Tennessee killed eight when it collapsed into the Hatchie River. Investigators determined that the bridge’s timber supports, which had been dug into dry ground in 1936, had rotted after the river changed course and flooded the area. They blamed the state for failing to follow the recommendations of its own inspectors to correct the problem.

All these accidents led the National TransportationSafety Board to order more intensive inspections and maintenance. The United States has more than 600,000 highway bridges, and the fact that no more than four failed because of maintenance problems in the last 50 years – and none in the last 20 years – suggests that there is no evidence of an infrastructure crisis.

Mary Peters, the Secretary of Transportation under George Bush, tried to introduce some calm into the debate by pointing out that transportation infrastructure problems, to the extent that they exist, are largely a matter of misplaced priorities. Legislators, she noted, prefer “ribbons over brooms,” that is, they prefer to fund capital projects over maintenance. Moreover, the increasing trend has been to spend gas taxes and other highway user fees on transit and other non-high- way projects. No new taxes are needed to repair structurally deficient bridges, Peters argued; instead, the existing funds should simply be spent more responsibly.

For example, the Sellwood Bridge, which crosses the Willamette River in my former hometown of Portland, Oregon, is structurally deficient and has been closed to trucks and buses. Rather than replace it, the city is hell-bent on building a new light-rail bridge, which will cost more and carry a tiny fraction of the traffic of the Sellwood Bridge. Virtually all the spare cash that the region can find for transportation is being funneled into light-rail and streetcar expansions.

As Peters’ voice was overwhelmed by a cacophony of demands for increased infrastructure spending, it became clear that supporters of higher gas taxes have a hidden agenda. Neither Oberstar nor Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who chairs the House transportation subcommittee on highways and transit, supports new roads. Instead, they want to spend more money on transit, particularly rail transit.

The federal gas tax “sunsets” every six years, meaning that Congress must reauthorize it to keep federal transportation funds flowing. Since 1993, Congress has dedicated about 15°,10 of those taxes to transit.Another 15% is “flexible,”which means that states can spend it either on highways or on transit. The result is that 20% of the federal gas taxes you pay go to transit, not highways.

For the stimulus bill, however, Oberstar proposed to spend 30°,10 of surface transportation funds on transit and only 70% on highways. Many thought such a precedent would lead Congress to increase transit’s share of funding in the next reauthorization. Oberstar, DeFazio, and others are using the manufactured infrastructure crisis to boost funding for their pet transit projects.

Historically, gas taxes and other user fees have funded nearly all our highways and most local roads and streets. This has encouraged state and local transportation planners to be efficient, since they know that if they build bridges’ to nowhere, they won’t generate any user fees to pay for them.

In contrast, 75% of funds spent on transit come from taxes, a situation that has turned transit agencies into tax addicts always seeking their next big fix. The fact that over half of federal transit funds (which come, remember, from highway users) are dedicated to the 7% of urban areas that have rail transit has contributed to a rail construction boom: cities deliberately choose high-cost transit systems in order to get a larger share of federal dollars.

The credit crisis revealed one example of transit agencies’ addiction to tax subsidies. Many agencies reported that because of the AIC meltdown many banks were demanding immediate repayment of loans. The agencies portrayed themselves as innocent victims of circumstances, especially since they had never missed a loan payment.

The truth was somewhat darker. In the early 1990s, the Federal Transit Administration began encouraging agencies to take advantage of a loophole in tax law. If a private company makes capital purchases, it can depreciate those purchases and save money on its taxes. Since public transit agencies are not taxpayers, they can’t do this. So they started selling their buses, rail cars, and other assets to banks. The banks would depreciate the assets and lease back the equipment to the transit agencies.

For every $100 million in capital assets, the banks saved about $6 million on taxes, which they split with the transit agencies. In other words, these leaseback arrangements allowed transit agencies to turn $100 million into $103 million – but taxpayers lost $6 million for every $3 million gained by the agencies. Fortunately, the IRS closed this loophole in 2004. The dozens of lucky transit agencies that arranged leasebacks before 2004 often insured their leases through AIG, and when AIG’s credit rating fell, the banks were entitled to demand immediate repayment, which led to demands for another federal bailout.

Although the final stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed by the president ‘in February totaled $787 billion, the vast majority of that money had nothing at all to do with infra- structure. Most of the bill goes for tax breaks or tax credits ($376 billion), health care ($154 billion, including aid to state Medicaid programs), state “fiscal stabilization” ($56 billion), and education ($51 billion).

Deducting these and a few minor programs from the package leaves about $142 billion, or 18%, for infrastructure – although even some of this isn’t really for that purpose. The Forest Service, for example, gets a half-billion dollars to “reduce fire hazards” by thinning forests. I’m not sure how this qualifies as infrastructure.

It is likely that most of the real infrastructure money will go for new projects, not repair or replacement of existing obsolete or deteriorating infrastructure. Nearly $51 billion is for windfarms and other “green” energy projects. Another $7.2 billion is for broadband telecommunications. Some $25 billion goes to various federal agencies for things like new buildings and making existing buildings more energy efficient.

After all the hullabaloo about crumbling bridges, Congress did not specifically allocate a single dime to bridge repair. Instead, it dedicated $27.5 billion to highways. Most of this will go to metropolitan areas and cash-strapped states that are not likely to share much with the rural counties that own most of the nation’s structurally deficient bridges. However, it is likely that most of this money will go for repaving and other maintenance needs rather than new construction, partly because of intense opposition to new highways.

Another $8.4 billion is for transit, most of which will be spent on new construction, not maintenance. Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Portland, Washington, and other cities have announced their plans to dedicate a large share of their funds to new streetcars or light-rail construction. Even if these rail

Rather than replace the existing bridge, the city of Portland is hell-bent on building a new light-rail bridge, which  will cost more and carry a tiny fraction” of the traffic.

 

lines are completely funded by federal stimulus funds, all they will do is obligate cities to divert funds from other worthwhile programs to pay for operations and maintenance.

This brings up a curious contradiction. When it comes to highways, the mantra of the anti-mobility crowd is “fix it first,” meaning don’t expand highway capacities until all maintenance needs are met. When it comes to transit, however, the same people want to spend money building new rail lines even when existing lines are in desperate need of repair.

Were it not for diversions to transit and resistance to toll roads (which is particularly strong from people who want no new roads at all), highway user fees would be more than sufficient to pay both for new roads and for the maintenance of existing ones. So there should be no reason to adopt a fix-it- first policy for roads.

Transit, particularly rail transit, is different. Like high- ways, rail transit lines must be completely rebuilt about every 30 years, but unlike highways, few transit agencies have the funding to do such reconstruction. Most rail transit agencies are in desperate financial straights: New York City has only $13 billion of the $30 billion it needs to maintain its subways and commuter lines. Washington DC’s subway riders have to deal with frequent breakdowns because the agency has none , of the $12 billion it needs for rehabilitation. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has about half of the $12 billion it needs for reconstruction.

Given these dire conditions, you would think the agencies would adopt a fix-it-first policy. Instead, New York has started construction on the 8-mile Second Avenue subway line that will cost $16.8 billion – $2.1 billion per mile. Virginia twisted arms in the Bush administration to get approval for a $6 billion rail line from Washington DC to Dulles Airport. BART is building another $6 billion line to San Jose, a line which – the agency’s environmental impact report predicts – will not save a single traveler a single minute of time during rush hours. At least in the latter two cases, buses running on high-occupancy vehicle lanes would have worked as well as rail, and at a tiny fraction of the cost.

In addition to increasing the ratio of funds going to transit, the stimulus bill also included a surprise: $8 billion for high-speed rail. This was specifically inserted at the request of President Obama, who said he wanted to make high-speed rail his”signature issue” in the stimulus package.

Aside from the sheer waste of money, lovers of freedom should oppose rail transit because of what it means for property rights. While buses can go anywhere people want to go, rails are inflexible. To spur ridership, rail transit agencies

Seventy-five percent of funds spent on transit come from taxes, a situation that has turned transit agencies into tax addicts always seeking their next big fix.

 

become land-use czars, promoting minimum-density zoning codes that mandate high-density housing near rail stations. These codes are often paired with “anti-sprawl” zoning aimed at preventing owners of land outside of urban areas from developing their properties. Residents of California, Oregon, and Washington are familiar with these sorts of laws; rail proponents are actively seeking to expand them to other states.

High-speed rail will only exacerbate this trend. Rather than keeping his promise to “rebuild America,” it seems likely that Obama’s true goal is to lire-socially engineer America” by heavily subsidizing transit and discouraging auto driving.

Although all the high-speed rail money will effectively go for “new” construction, it remains to be seen how much will go for each of the two different kinds of high-speed rail. One type, which should be called “moderate-speed rail,” consists of upgrading existing freight lines to allow passenger trains to run as fast as 110 miles per hour. The other, which is true high-speed rail, consists of building brand-new rail lines capable of running trains as fast as 220-miles per hour. Though the second type is only twice as fast, it costs at least ten times as much.

The Federal Railroad Administration has designed a national high-speed rail network that extends about 9,000 miles. Adding other active proposals brings the total to 11,000. Constructed to moderate-speed standards, this net- work will cost about $50 billion; at true high-speed standards, it will cost more than $500 billion. Even then, it will not allow coast-to-coast journeys: there are gaps between New York and Chicago, Houston and Dallas, Jacksonville and Orlando, and nothing at all between Kansas City and California, even though this area includes some of the fastest-growing cities and states in the nation. Completing the network by filling in these gaps would significantly increase the cost.

Rail advocates from the Midwest, where Obama is from, have proposed a network of moderate-speed rail lines connect- ing Chicago with Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. California wants true high-speed rail between its major cities. While the $8 billion is more than enough to fund the entire 3,150-mile Midwest rail plan, it is less than half the money that California wants from the federal government for just the first leg of its high-speed rail plan.

Given that the infrastructure crisis was entirely fabricated and that transportation and most other infrastructure should be able to pay for itself out of user fees, the stimulus bill was entirely unnecessary. If Congress really wanted to stimulate the economy, it should have offered state and local governments low-interest loans that would be repaid out of future user fees. This would have ensured that any infrastructure built from the loans was actually necessary.

Even though the stimulus bill is a one-time-only pack- age, it set many ugly precedents. Of course, they create moral hazards because entities from banks to transit agencies have learned that they can engage in risky behavior and expect the federal government to bail them out when the risks explode in their faces.

Just as serious as the moral hazards are the effects of deficits and new construction on the nation’s future economy. For me, the $8 billion for high-speed rail, though only 1% of the bill, is the scariest part of the entire package. If We end up building a $500-billion high-speed rail network, or even a $50 billion moderate-speed rail network, every city of modest size on that network will want to build its own expensive rail transit lines. This will lead to intrusive zoning aimed at forcing more people to live in high-density projects along such lines rather than in the single-family homes that are the housing of choice for the vast majority of Americans. As years go by, it will also lead to continuing demands for tax increases to maintain, rebuild, and augment rail lines that never should have been built in the first place.

What is the likelihood that high-speed rail and urban rail transit can transform America, as Obama and his supporters hope? The best answer can be found by looking at other countries that have built high-speed rail. Japan has spent as much, and France has spent about half as much, per capita, on high- speed rail as we spent on the Interstate Highway System.

San Francisco is building another $6 billion line which, the agency’s environmental impact report predicts, will not save a single traveler a single minute of time during rush hours.

 

The average American travels 4,000 miles a year and ships 2,000 ton-miles a year on the interstates. By comparison, the average residents of France and Japan travel only 400 miles per year on high-speed trains, which carry virtually no freight. While almost every American regularly uses interstate highways, it is likely that a few French and Japanese use high-speed rail a lot and most rarely or not at all.

Interstates paid for themselves out of gas taxes, and most Americans use them almost every day. Moderate- or high- speed rail would require huge tax subsidies and would regularly serve only a small elite. Which is the better symbol for the America that President Obama wants to build?

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