Infrastructure is patriotic

[Image: Photo by Allen Brisson-Smith for The New York Times].

After yesterday's bridge collapse in Minneapolis – a bridge my sister and her family drove across everyday – the decaying state of American infrastructure is becoming all the more apparent.
Last month it was an exploding steam pipe in Manhattan; a few years ago it was the levees of southern Louisiana; and anyone who drives a car in the U.S. has probably noticed that the roads here are not particularly well-kept. The sheer number of potholes in the city of Philadelphia, for instance, was enough to convince me, only half-jokingly, that if the city was not going to spend any money fixing the streets, then they should at least help underwrite repair bills for all the broken axles, blown suspensions, and sometimes major fender benders caused by the city's rather obvious display of custodial irresponsibility.

[Image: Photo by Jeff Wheeler/The Star Tribune/AP; via The Guardian].

In any case, The New York Times opines today that these system-wide failures "are an indication that this country is not investing enough in keeping its vital infrastructure in good repair."
    Transportation officials know many of the nation’s 600,000 bridges are in need of repair or replacement. About one in eight has been deemed "structurally deficient," a term that typically means a component of the bridge's structure has been rated poor or worse, but does not necessarily warn of imminent collapse.
    Most deficient bridges, which included the span of Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, remain open to traffic.
Worse, 13.6 percent of U.S. bridges – i.e. more than 81,000 bridges – are "functionally obsolete."

[Image: Photo by Heather Munro/The Star Tribune/AP; via The Guardian].

Ironically, only six days ago the Federal Highway Administration announced a $5.3 million grant program meant to stimulate and reward innovative research in bridge repair and design.
"Nearly $5.3 million in grants will be awarded to bridge projects in 25 states to help develop new technologies to speed bridge construction and make them safer," we read on the FHA website.
None of those grants will be going to Minnesota.

[Images: Photos courtesy of The New York Times].

It's interesting to point out, then, that the Federal Highway Administration's annual budget appears to be hovering around $35-40 billion a year – and, while I'm on the subject, annual government subsidies for Amtrak come in at slightly more than $1 billion. That's $1 billion every year to help commuter train lines run.
To use but one financial reference point, the U.S. government is spending $12 billion per month in Iraq – billions and billions of dollars of which have literally been lost.
Infrastructure is patriotic.
There is no reason to question the political loyalties of those who would advocate spending taxpayer dollars on national infrastructure – from highway bridges and railway lines to steam pipes, levees, electrical lines, and subway tunnels – instead of on military adventures abroad.
Four months of foreign war would be enough to double the annual budget for the Federal Highway Administration – if that's what one would choose to spend the money on – taking care of quite a few of those 81,000+ bridges which are still open to traffic and yet "functionally obsolete."
Perhaps the best way to be "pro-American" these days is to lobby for modern, safe, and trustworthy infrastructure – and the economic efficiencies to which that domestic investment would lead.
At the risk of promoting a kind of isolationist infrastructural nationalism, I'd say that urban design and engineering is a sadly under-appreciated – yet incredibly exciting – way to serve your country.

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Blogger Joerg said...

I'm seriously amazed none of the bridges in Pittsburgh has collapsed, yet. For example, they built this new strip mall but completely neglected that the only bridge going there from the city was in serious disrepair. And then two cities (Pittsburgh and Homestead) kept haggling over who should pay for the bridge. After years, it got now repaved, but I wouldn't bet a cent on the integrity of the metal structure underneath.

The solution for another bridge, whose concrete is literally falling down as people drive underneath (there's a major highway underneath), was to put a structure underneath that catches the falling debris. Never mind the fact that the bridge might actually collapse. Maybe they hope the structure will also catch the bridge?

Needless to say, all this could be fixed. But it won't. Because, and here's the catch, the city doesn't have the money because it's a higher priority to build yet another sports arena. People would rather have a new sports arena than spend the money on more useful stuff.

Of ocurse, this is not an American phenomenon. In Munich, the largest soccer club blackmailed the city into building a new arena (despite the fact that they had a perfect one) - but then in Munich, the infrastructure isn't falling apart....

August 02, 2007 4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would prefer that the model feel something more like Europe. I was fortunate enough to live there for a while, and difference in the money that goes into their infrastructure is quite obvious.

While Europe does have higher taxes, there is an appearance that it actually goes towards something. Excellent rail lines, efficient bus lines and beautiful highways.

I might not complain about paying my taxes so much if I didn't think it was all going towards bombing the Middle East into an ashtray.

August 02, 2007 5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not that this should undermine your main point, but "functional obsolescence" has nothing to do with safety concerns, as your post seems to imply. It refers to infrastructure components that weren't designed for the purposes they're currently being asked to fulfill, say a two-lane road that's trying to serve four lanes worth of traffic.

August 02, 2007 5:46 PM  
Blogger kronick said...

I'm a Minnesotan and after I got over the initial surprise, my mind, like Geoff's, turned to politics.

I have to agree wholeheartedly that the difference between spending in Iraq and spending on domestic infrastructure is something that needs to be questioned.

But rather than look at this as a sign that we need to suddenly shift all (even most) of our attention towards improving infrastructure, I think it should remind us of how dangers exist in the world all around us even if they're not in the media or the government's spotlight.

Politicians right now want you to feel as though terrorism is the most serious (only) threat to your personal safety over which you have no control. The uncertainty that it could happen any time, anywhere is supposedly really scary. Except clearly it's not the only uncertain threat facing you today. Things like the spontaneous collapse of a bridge can either make you more scared to drive over bridges until the government throws more money at them, or more aware that life is just a dangerous place. There are so many risks out there and rather than overreacting to each one when it's still emotionally charged and fresh in your mind, we need to take each for what it's worth.

I'd agree that supporting infrastructure is patriotic, but I'd expand the definition of infrastructure to include all things that this country has built - from the physical (roadways, etc) to the abstract (a foundation of freedom, [dwindling] respect as a world leader, etc).

Otherwise, what's going to happen? A global war on decrepitude? Unlikely.

August 02, 2007 9:44 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

The War on Rot.

August 02, 2007 9:57 PM  
Blogger Sievetronix said...

Not only should Philadelphia pay for car repairs, but it should pay for my bike wheels getting trued once a month, and a new set of wheels once a year. Seriously i went through 2 tires last month because of the roads.

uh yea i'll stop ranting now.

August 03, 2007 3:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having just relocated to Boston from Philly, I'm quite happy saying goodbye to the pit that is that city. But seriously, they have more concerns than their potholes. The violence is out of control there. Plus the mayor needs his iPhone.

But beyond just infrastructure, the money being thrown down the well in Iraq could do so much in this country.

August 03, 2007 8:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes oh yes. It's so true, and it's so heartbreaking. This is what I thought after Katrina and it's the first thing that came to mind after the bridge collapse.

I do have one quibble about the post. Urban design isn't just a way to serve our countries - it's a way to improve and beautify the world. Both in its physical and (like sam said) social aspects. Because there's just no better way to bond with your neighbors than over a little 1:2000 model of your stomping grounds, bashing each others' heads in over alternative designs for a brand-new park.

Here's one soldier reporting for duty in the war against rot!

August 03, 2007 9:03 AM  
Blogger Egregorian said...

Every time there is a car wreck because of drunk driving, the driver should be forced to donate money towards a system of trains. OF course, if the government had not let the oil industry buy out the trolleys of every small town......

August 03, 2007 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought that most of the Amtrak subsidies did not go for commuter trains but rather long-haul trains between rural areas. I thought that the east coast commuting corridor was actually profitable, or at least close to being so.

August 03, 2007 11:54 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Sorry - I've had to delete two earlier comments because they were making the margins of this post go crazy.
Those comments were:

Timothy said:

Infrastructure is Musical:

Thursday, 08/02/07
Stoplight music puts pep in steps


And Brendan said:

Well now here's an interesting chart...

August 03, 2007 3:04 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

I thought that most of the Amtrak subsidies did not go for commuter trains but rather long-haul trains between rural areas.

That's right, actually - though it's also long-haul trains between not necessarily rural areas (New York to Denver, say, or Chicago to Seattle); it would have been more accurate for me to have said subsidies for passenger rail, not for commuter rail (though commuter rail is still not profitable in this country).

I can't find the numbers on this, but my brother mentioned once in a conversation that the cost of repairing one span of highway in the city of San Francisco after the Loma Prieta earthquake was equal to the entire annual subsidy for Amtrak (which seems fishy - but I can't find a citation).

Yet you don't hear libertarians or mountain state conservatives complain about the U.S. interstate highway system - they complain about Amtrak. Or at least I don't hear libertarians complaining about the U.S. interstate highway system. Maybe they do. Send me links, if you know otherwise.

But paved space is subsidized space. Every road and sidewalk - well, not every, but the overwhelming majority of roads and sidewalks in the U.S. - is a subsidized landscape, brought to you by taxpayer dollars. It doesn't just appear there.

But I want numbers: surely all the roads in the United States, and the new freeways, and the bridges, etc., are more expensive, by far, than an entirely nationalized passenger rail system? In other words, Amtrak is a drop in the bucket compared to the U.S. interstate highway system. You might be subsidizing someone to take a train from New York to Denver - but you're also subsidizing them to drive from New York to Denver.

Or is that why libertarians promote the privatization of interstates? Public/private toll routes and things like that?

Anyone out there qualified to comment on this? I'm endlessly fascinated by different political/philosophical approaches to infrastructure.

August 03, 2007 3:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Infrastructure is a problem everywhere. In Laval Quebec there have been two bridge collapses this decade.
Sure more money should go into repairing these structures. However we also need to convince people to live closer together- get rid of two hour communtes, take public transit, etc. Less infrastructure is easier to take care of and costs less.

August 03, 2007 4:39 PM  
Blogger m said...

Heaven forbid we pay some extra taxes to keep our society functional.

I am staying in New Orleans, so a decaying infrastructure (and an abundance of bridges) have become quite familiar to me. I realize that infrastructure is difficult everywhere, but from the time I lived in Europe (Spain) I do remember a level of efficiency and dependability in all of the infrastructure - roads (and road cleaning), public transit, etc.

I am not a structural engineer (not even close) so I won't pretend to know better than others what needs to be done. But is it not worth paying higher taxes to know that you can rely on your city for the things it is supposed to provide??

August 03, 2007 5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Melissa is correct. This is a tax issue. Americans don't like to pay taxes. We would rather see the fabric of our society shred than pull a buck out of our pockets. I grew up helping my parents every few years work to convince the good citizens of our school district in Ohio that they should educate their own children. Sometimes the bond issues passed; many times they didn't. So there you go.

August 03, 2007 7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott said...

"I would prefer that the model feel something more like Europe. I was fortunate enough to live there for a while, and difference in the money that goes into their infrastructure is quite obvious.

While Europe does have higher taxes, there is an appearance that it actually goes towards something. Excellent rail lines, efficient bus lines and beautiful highways.

I might not complain about paying my taxes so much if I didn't think it was all going towards bombing the Middle East into an ashtray."

The ironic thing is that Germany (as Joerg points out re. Munich) & Europe generally have great infrastructure because so much of it was bombed into an ashtray during WWII, and then rebuilt (with a lot of American money, too -- Marshall Plan).

I lived in the US for nearly 20 years and used to think about that a lot, whenever I saw a crumbling bridge. The money now spent on the war in Iraq would be better spent blowing up some of the decrepit infrastructure at home, and then rebuilding it anew with a domestic Marshall Plan.

August 03, 2007 8:37 PM  
Blogger Carl Douglas said...

This website may be of interest.

August 04, 2007 7:25 AM  
Blogger Goethe Girl said...

What a bunch of negative-thinking comments! Europe is NOT the answer. Bridges fall, because men don't build perfect things. Bad things happen. Taxes never go to where the politicians say they will go. There was plenty of money in Louisiana that could have gone into protecting New Orleans from the damage sustained in that hurricane.

August 05, 2007 4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey geoff,

I no longer have the book, but the figures I quoted to you came from a book called Ecocities by Richard Register in which he argues that the huge amounts of money that go to build, design, repair and maintain our highway and road system including bridges, underpasses, tunnels etc. dwarfs any money that may or may not go to Amtrak (see new Bush budget). Of course, if even a small amount of this money went to Amtrak, we might have a safe, reliable train system that people would be waiting in line to take instead of a unreliable and arguably overpriced, system that we have now. This would also, of course, mean less money would then have to be spent building new highways etc. (although, as in the point of the above post, we would still need to maintain what we have.)

However, I just did some searching and found this article on the rebuilding of the Cypress Viaduct Freeway after the Loma Prieta Earthquake. The key phrase is “The new freeway was completed in 1997 at a cost of 1.25 billion dollars.” If we take 1.2 billion dollars as the current federal Amtrak subsidy, I believe this is what Richard Register was referring to. And yes, we’re talking about a roughly 1.3 kilometer stretch of highway. I also remember that his larger point was that people actually liked taking the ferries and other forms of public transport after the earthquake, before the government decided to spend tax money to effectively ensure that people went back to using their cars again. (just to be clear, I have no claim that I can speak for San Franciscans’ transport preferences, I’m not even sure they call themselves San Franciscans for that matter)

Anyway, for the record I would recommend Ecocities, while perhaps a bit overreaching in what might be possible in our political climate, he offers page after page of illuminating and inspiring ideas and images of what city life could be like in the future.

Also check out
this article
for more info on the federal Amtrak subsidy.

August 05, 2007 11:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting to hear the discussion about highway infrastructure vs. the amtrak funding. The amount of federal tax money which is spent on highways is astronomical. Plus as someone who uses a bike and commuter rail to travel, I can tell you that the former creates a 'statistically insignificant' impact on the roadway. So if you're concerned about the cause of potholes, failing bridges, or the high infrastructure cost, than look no further than the driveway.
I encourage you to let your local politicians know that we do not support this.

August 06, 2007 2:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Cypress viaduct, the SF freeway discussed in the preceding threads, is technically in Oakland, and it's replacement was an extensive urban retrofit, of questionable benefit to the bay area transit system. It links directly to the new currently under construction replacement Oakland/San Francisico Bay Bridge.

But I wanted to emphasize the US war and hunger for oil is the economic driver that fuels consumption and the public routes of trade and commerce. Riding on this backbone is the weapons manufacturing [USA's largest export?] and distribution industries.

Public transit is merely benefactorial breadcrumbs left over by the lawyers, guns and money crowd.

August 06, 2007 3:26 PM  
Blogger Odille said...

You are so lucky to have trains. here where I live on the north coast of NSW (Australia) the government closed our rail link rather than spend money repairing the bridges. They throw money at new highway bypasses of towns, which just deprives them of tourism business (a big % of their income).
Sine the rail closure you have to travel 2 hours by bus to the nearest rail link to go to Sydney, the state capital! This is impossible for many of the large proportion of elderly and disabled residents as they simply cannot get on the bus at all. Also, the buses do not have toilets and if you are elderly and have a bit of trouble with the waterworks, travbel is effectively barred to you.
It is also difficult for mothers with babies and toddlers in strollers etc.
So while I agree with the comments that the US govt maybe needs to re-examine it's priorities, perhaps the populace does too in terms of where their state/mucicipal taxes are spent. New public buildings/facilities may be nice, but surely safety comes first.

August 07, 2007 2:02 PM  
Blogger Black Swamp Road Geek said...

As a Professional Engineer in the transportation industry in Ohio I will concur that infrastructure is notoriously ignored. People complain when orange barrels appear. So politicians don;t expand the program because it is not the priority of the electorate.
When the transportation lobby told Congress that $400 billion was need in the current authorization bill two years ago, the President and Congress went below $300 million. The egg is on all of their faces now.
The error in your essay is connecting the war in Iraq with this tragedy. The two are totally unrelated. Transportation infrastructure os funded by a gas tax that has not been increased since 1997 as part of a bill passed in 1993. The gas tax is one of few direct forms of taxation that is dedicated to specific purpose. Sure the bureaucrats misspend it from time to time but it is tax dollars that are truly invested in our country contrary to the many entitlement programs.
Every $1 billion spent on transportation creates 47,500 jobs. If the last authorization bill would have been in the $400 million range, people like me would not be out of work right now.
The Highway Trust Fund is nearing a deficit. To truly meet our countries needs, an increase in the Federal Gas Tax to fix not only bridges but all infrastructure is needed now.
Write your Congressman

August 07, 2007 5:29 PM  
Blogger J D Lowe said...

You may find the link to the upcoming overpass replacement near the Island Park exit on highway 417 in Ottawa, Ontario of interest:
Bascially, a new overpass is being built right beside the one currently in use. On the weekend of the 11 & 12 Aug, the highway will be closed, the old overpass will be cut out and removed, and finally the new one will be pushed into place - if all goes well.

August 08, 2007 8:56 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Kevin, thanks for the numbers and for the book reference!

As far as this comment goes: "The error in your essay is connecting the war in Iraq with this tragedy" – I just want to clarify that I'm not claiming that the Iraq War is being funded with money that would otherwise have been used to repair the US highway system; I'm saying that the $12 billion per month cost of the Iraq War is a very clear demonstration of the fact that the US can invest huge, concentrated doses of capital into specific, historically defined projects, at what amounts to a moment's notice.

Unfortunately for our country, we've chosen to invest in a war instead of investing in making our nation stronger.

So that's why I phrased this the way I did: "To use but one financial reference point..." After all, I could have mentioned farm subsidies (the money spent on annual farm subsidies could go toward fixing our infrastructure instead of toward paying-off redundant corn farmers) - etc. etc.

In any case, my point here is not to blame the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis on the war in Iraq; my point in mentioning Iraq was simply to draw attention to the fact that the US is capable of huge, complex, and rapidly executed investments - and that the cost of maintaining the nation's infrastructure pales in comparison to other large-scale investments, such as the Iraq War, now being made.

In other words, when it's put next to the cost of fighting the war in Iraq, fixing the country's roads and bridges - and its hospitals and schools - isn't even that intimidating.

Fixing our roads and bridges, financially speaking, in Iraq War dollars, if you will, would only take a few months. That's financially speaking.

Anyway, as a national project - as something to invest in, or to "declare war on" - infrastructural re-design and repair, including shifting resources toward rail and light rail, is something that we could do, proudly and successfully, with huge economic, industrial, and quality of life benefits for almost everyone. But we've chosen not to do it.

Thus the title of this post: infrastructure is patriotic. And sometimes war is precisely not patriotic.

August 09, 2007 3:37 AM  
Blogger Matty said...

A working infrastructure -- particularly roadways -- is vital for a prosperous and growing economy. Has anyone been to India recently? They're building a "golden quadrilaterial" there, but this is much too little, too late. Any American would be horrified to find out how long it takes to travel 100 miles in India. But if we let our Interstate system go to seed, it we may face similar problems.

August 09, 2007 12:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

all - let's promote public-private partnerships.
step 1: implement a toll system on all bridges and highways, thus relieving taxpayer burden
step 2: enter into long-term lease concessions where private operators are responsible for the operation and maintenance of infrastructure, thus cutting down on government burden

August 12, 2007 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it was painfully obvious to the rest of the world wayback when Katrina hit so hard, that America needed to get its resources out of Iraq and back home where required. America has no business bullying others when it is so very sick within to begin with.

August 14, 2007 10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it was painfully obvious to the entire rest of the world wayback when Katrina hit so very hard, that America needed to pull all its resources and manpower from Iraq and fix itself from within.

August 14, 2007 10:51 PM  

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