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During the Democratic convention President Obama noted that one of the ways that we need to invest in our future – while creating jobs in the process – would be to address our aging infrastructure. I think that he even mentioned bridges which ought to be a big deal for Missourians since we have hundreds of bridges that are disasters waiting to happen.

I invite you to take a look at this interactive map at SaveOurBridges.com. The little tags that spring up when you run the cursor over the map represent bridges that are both “structurally deficient” and “fracture critical.” To give you an idea of what this means, the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed a few years ago, killing 13 and injuring 145 people, had been determined to be structurally deficient and fracture critical. When you look at the map, you will notice that Missouri is almost obscured by the number of symbols indicating bridges in a similar state. There are so many deficient bridges that you have to keep zooming in closer and closer in order to make out specific problem bridges.  

Most of these decaying bridges carry fewer than 24,000 cars a day, but the traffic on two bridges in the St. Louis area and one in Kansas City average between 25,000 and 75,000 cars daily. I don’t know about you, but this sort of statistic makes me very nervous. According to Forbes

The sad state of America’s bridges is likely to make an already challenging fiscal future still more so.  It will cost an estimated $70.9 billion to address the current backlog of deficient bridges, according to FHWA’s 2009 statistics.  This estimate may prove wildly conservative.

While the size of this investment may seem massive, the political consequences of delay seems likely to be so substantial that one would suspect the Uncle Sam to pony up whatever funds were necessary.  Surprisingly, this does not appear to be happening at anywhere near the scale needed to avoid more catastrophes like the one that took place in Minnesota.

Unlike William Pentland, the Forbes contributor whom I quote above, I am not surprised at all by government inaction. Certainly since the cooperation adverse Tea Party Republicans who elbowed their way into the congress in 2010 have been banging the deficit-über-alles, our-way-or-the-highway drum, it seems as unlikely that we will address our infrastructure problems as it is that we will effectively deal with our employment problems – even though renewing and maintaining our aging bridges would go a long way toward meeting both needs.  

This is not to say that we won’t get some new bridges, although we may have to wait until there are a few more horrendous events like the Minneapolis bridge collapse. However, given the GOP reluctance to commit to using government to build and maintain infrastructure, it may be private investors who take up the slack – which will probably be just fine with the original crony capitalists. Get ready to say hello to toll bridges since politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, seem to lack either the clout or, often, the intestinal fortitude to take on the anti-tax, deficit cutting claque in order do the right thing. So it looks like we will end up paying over and over for the right to get from one place to another. Time Magazine‘s Barbara Kiviat summarizes some of the arguments against turning our national infrastructure over to private interests:

… Tolls often skyrocket under private owners, though with the blessing of elected officials, who avoid the political costs of raising tolls or taxes themselves. That’s how privatized roads deliver double-digit returns for investors and often lead to upgrades like electronic tolling. But there are other devils lurking in the details, like noncompete clauses that may prevent transportation agencies from building new roads, or the inability to use roads for economic development by, say, adding a new exit to attract businesses. Some officials get queasy about locking themselves into long leases; Colorado officials already regret offering a 99-year lease for the Northwest Parkway. …

It is likely that, no matter what, we will see a few more private-public partnerships to build new bridges in the future. We don’t need to totally surrender our national infrastructure to the big-money boys, however; there is another way.  The President’s jobs bill, The American Jobs Act (pdf), allocates $27 billion for transportation infrastructure programs, including bridge and highway repair.

We’d get new jobs and new bridges. What’s not to like? All we’ve got to do is say no to Romney/Ryan and vote the rest of the GOP bums out. And guess what? If we’re finally able to get the level of public infrastructure spending that we need to boost the economy, we’ll speed up the recovery overall, increase tax revenues and we will finally be in a real position to deal with deficit reduction in a sane, reality-cognizant fashion.