Important and interesting articles and reports published recently about America’s infrastructure.
- “High Speed Rail Proposals Map“, Matthew Yglesias, ThinkProgress, 21 April 2009 — Cost be dammed thinking from a young leftist journalist.
- “Infrastructure Madness“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 21 April 2009 — “Don’t believe everything you read about the failing bridges and antiquated waterworks.”
- “The 2009 Report Card for American Infrastrstructure”, published by the the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
(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:
- Place your hand firmly on your wallet,
- slip your B.S. detector over your ears and fasten tightly, and
- 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.
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