Reading Recommendations – about our infrastructure

Important and interesting articles and reports published recently about America’s infrastructure.

  1. High Speed Rail Proposals Map“, Matthew Yglesias, ThinkProgress, 21 April 2009 — Cost be dammed thinking from a young leftist journalist.
  2. Infrastructure Madness“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 21 April 2009 — “Don’t believe everything you read about the failing bridges and antiquated waterworks.”
  3. The 2009 Report Card for American Infrastrstructure”, published by the the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)

Excerpts

(1)   High Speed Rail Proposals Map“, Matthew Yglesias, ThinkProgress, 21 April 2009 — There is no point reading the “cost be dammed” thinking from a young leftist journalist, the graphic is nifty — and this comment provides the perfect response.  By Rich in PA:

We can’t build that Albuquerque-to-Casper HSR line fast enough. It’s vital to our competitiveness in the drunken-boasts-versus-Japan race that will decide our collective future.

It is vital that stimulus spending — all borrowed — be spent on things that generate some form of economic return. The exception are measures to mitigate the suffering of the poor and working poor.  For more about spending the fiscal stimulus see Dr. Bush, stabilize the economy – stat! (7 October 2009).

(2)   Infrastructure Madness“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 21 April 2009 — “Don’t believe everything you read about the failing bridges and antiquated waterworks.”

Whenever the government and the construction industry start squawking to the press about the horrors of our aging, crumbling, decaying, decrepit infrastructure, and warn that we must spend hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars on waterworks, bridges, and roads, please observe this three-step safety procedure:

  1. Place your hand firmly on your wallet,
  2. slip your B.S. detector over your ears and fasten tightly, and
  3. read all the fine print before you take your hand off your wallet.

Why such extreme vigilance? Because it takes little to convince reporters that our infrastructure has rusted to hell and that tens of billions must be spent now on construction products lest both our economy and our bridges collapse.

… So credulous is press coverage that reporters almost never ask whether some Rust Belt bridges might be redundant or economically superfluous because industry and population have moved on. And just because a bridge occupied a place on the traffic grid once shouldn’t give it a right to eternal service.

As Tom G. Palmer wrote in the February 1983 Inquiry magazine (disclosure: I worked there), “it is no accident that while the rhetoric is repair, the reality is new construction.” He continues:

Highway-improvement politics differs little from military hardware procurement. Rather than keeping old systems in good repair, money flows into flashy new structures where millions can be lavished on consultants, research, and planning.

Big construction projects — not well-executed maintenance projects — deliver political rewards, Palmer holds. “Nobody ever held a ribbon cutting-ceremony for the painting of a bridge,” he observes this week.

For those of us who track infrastructure madness in the press, the current round is mighty familiar. As deplorable as our bridges may be, they’re better than they were a generation ago. Today, the government classifies about 25% of U.S. bridges as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.  A July 18, 1982, New York Times article headlined “Alarm Rise Over Decay in U.S. Public Works” cites government statistics that classify 45% of U.S. bridges deficient or obsolete.

(3)  “The 2009 Report Card for American Infrastrstructure”, published by the the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)

As usually, the media greets this with lavish and uncritical coverage.  Such as “U.S. Infrastructure Is in Dire Straits, Report Says“, New York Times, 27 January 2009.  I recommend some skepticism about their recommendations. Is there an professional group that says “no more money needed for us?”  Almost everyone plays the game.

Psychologists and social workers warns of epidemic of mental illness.

Dozens of “disease of the month” groups warn that 5% of the US population is at risk (so many that I wonder that anyone remains alive).

Civil Engineers warn that our infrastructure is collapsing, as have for years or decades (with no visible signs of the accelerating closings and disasters that should result if this were true).

There was no “golden age” in which our infrastructure was in fine shape. For example, by 1980 New York City’s transportation infrastructure was mostly of pre-WWII vintage. The PATH system, much of the subways, and Metro-North were near collapse from decades of minimal funding. This was largely fixed during the two decades decade or so, with the renovation of Grand Central Station as its climax.

It has been 11 years since the ASCE published their 1998 report card (here, with the full report here).  Despite the low 1998 scores, with no flood of public capital expenditures since then (certainly not on the scale they recommended), we have survived without obvious ill effects.

This flood of alarmist PR, this jostling around the government trough, is an abdication of professional responsibility with serious consequences. So many groups so often warning of doom damages our OODA (observation-orientation-decision-action) loop, by making it difficult for the American public to see our real critical needs.

Afterword

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8 thoughts on “Reading Recommendations – about our infrastructure

  1. I think Tom Palmer’s quote in Jack Shafer’s article is interesting because there is an upcoming shift in the defense industry from big ticket procurement programs to Operating & Maintenance support contracts. This is not a proactive change from industry but instead a reactive one stemming from much fewer big ticket procurement programs down the pipe, and an increased budget burden of O&M relative to acquisition due to the 7 year+ long wars in the middle east.

    While the transportation equivalent of the long war will not solve the issues of infrastructure, I suspect a reigning in of the various infrastructure budgets in a battle for limited funds would do some good.

  2. Really, the only professional group one should listen to are Electrical Engineers. The world is going to hell in a handbasket because no one will listen to us.

  3. If the economy drops hard enough that people start stealing electricity, or cannibalizing public infrastructure to sell off as scrap, the risk of this country falling to the level of the Third World increases dramatically, as does the difficulty in digging ourselves back out of the hole.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s a disturbing thought that I have also had. Large scale immigration from the 3rd world of course makes this more likely.

  4. FM : “It is vital that stimulus spending — all borrowed — be spent on things that generate some form of economic return. The exception are measures to mitigate the suffering of the poor and working poor. For more about spending the fiscal stimulus see Dr. Bush, stabilize the economy – stat! (7 October 2009).

    What makes you so positive that a high speed rail network wouldn’t stimulate economic growth? Having rail between cities means that people and commodities can travel between them more cheaply. It is not a guaranteed outcome, but if you can harmonize between what the businesses need to sell or buy, the right kind of land planning, and the right funding, you might very well stimulate economic growth.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Let’s use adjectives, since nobody (of consequence) is proposing a single national HS RR for the US! Some high-speed railroad lines in the US seem likely to work, such high-traffic lines in the Northeast. Most of the other lines shown on the map are guaranteed losers, due to low traffic and costs. Western lines potentially have high traffic, but combine high capital costs (due to the geography) and operating costs (long-distances between cities).

  5. FM in #4: “Some high-speed railroad lines in the US seem likely to work, such high-traffic lines in the Northeast. Most of the other lines shown on the map are guaranteed losers, due to low traffic and costs. Western lines potentially have high traffic, but combine high capital costs (due to the geography) and operating costs (long-distances between cities).

    Fair enough, that makes sense. And I didn’t mean to suggest a single network, my mistake. I just don’t see how it all adds up to “cost be damned thinking” on the part of Yglesias. I don’t really think Yglesias is dead set on blowing government moolah– he wants to show his readers various ideas that are being floated, and let them comment.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Having read quite a few of Yglesias euphoric articles about high-spped rail, I disagree. He writes about them like neocons about war — an inherently good thing, with no consideration of cost. Examples are here and here.

    BTW, this is IMO a fruitful analogy. The materials published in surpport of the California HS rail initiative are remarkably similar in their medacity to those of the Bush Aministration before the invasion of Iraq. More evidence that neither party is fit to rule.

  6. FM in #5: “He writes about them like neocons about war — an inherently good thing, with no consideration of cost.BTW, this is IMO a fruitful analogy. The materials published in surpport of the California HS rail initiative are remarkably similar in their medacity to those of the Bush Aministration before the invasion of Iraq.

    OK, I’ll read more of his advocacy for high speed rail.

  7. FM: “Some high-speed railroad lines in the US seem likely to work, such high-traffic lines in the Northeast. Most of the other lines shown on the map are guaranteed losers, due to low traffic and costs. Western lines potentially have high traffic, but combine high capital costs (due to the geography) and operating costs (long-distances between cities).

    This is based on current fuel costs. If we cannot power our autos and airplanes as economically in the future, highway expansion with a 30 year lifetime could be a white elephant, and the railroad will look good.

    If rail transportation becomes a necessity, how fast can we ramp up? Paris to Strasbourg started in 1985, and is still not complete, and may never be completely high speed (the low speed part is probably like our high speed rail).

    “… a route through relatively sparsely populated regions to Strasbourg, with around half a million in the wider urban area.” (LGV Est Européen High-Speed Line, France)

    In my opinion we should electrify and our freight railroads first, since we know these will be used. Of course if they steal the wire.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The distance between Paris and Strasbourg is only 225 miles. I have no data on density between those cities. I suspect that this is a shorter distance through denser population than between most (not all) US cites outside the East Coast.

    At some level of oil prices, high speed rail looks good vs. highway and air transit. Seeing some research on this would be nice before spending billions. Which goes to my point that we have taken a shine to inspired guessing — instead of actual research — as the preferred problem solving method for serious problems. AKA out OODA loop is broken.

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