Well-built bridges + a down economy = higher priorities than a crumbling infrastructure
BY BENJAMIN ROODE
It didn't used to be this hard.
The U.S. federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon almost expired in March after sharp debate over how much Washington should spend on federal transportation projects. Senators passed a transportation bill earlier in the month, but House Republicans failed to pass it. Both houses agreed on a 90-day extension just days before the tax and bill were set to expire.
Gasoline taxes fund almost 90% of all federal transportation projects. State and local fuel taxes do much the same on the local level. It's hard to pass a new tax these days, and gasoline taxes are especially distasteful to voters looking at $4 per gallon gasoline. Toll booths and mileage charges? Same thing.
Debate surrounds such charges as the nation's infrastructure is on the brink, according to some sources. The American Society of Civil Engineers rates America's infrastructure a "D," but images of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota no longer stick in voters' and drivers' minds.
As a result, spending on transportation and water infrastructure as a percentage of gross domestic product has decreased steadily since the late 1950s. It's projected to sink even more. New projects with federal funding are marginalized as earmarks or pork by those who pay for them but don't see immediate results. And local funding is secured only when each minute detail is laid out at the ballot box.
How did the United States, with the world's most enviable highway, power, and water infrastructures, suddenly come to the brink of literal collapse? The answer lies at the junction of a well-designed and built infrastructure, a fracturing political system, and a public more focused on tomorrow than a decade hence.
Out of Sight
The country's roads, sewers, and dams are the best designed and best performing in the world. That's one of the main reasons they're crumbling, infrastructure experts say.
When taxpayers drive the same roads day-in and day-out, turn on the faucet for automatic water, and flip a switch for light, it gets easier to take for granted the infrastructure making those amenities possible. Why spend tax money when there's no problem apparent to a public that lacks infrastructure engineering knowledge and perspective?
"As long as the commode works when you flush it, people aren't worried about spending money on infrastructure," says Bill Fendley, P.E., F.NSPE, who chairs NSPE's Legislative and Government Affairs committee.
"It's just not visible," he continues. "We're spoiled in this country. You're used to being able to turn on the faucet and getting water, getting on the road and going and not having to worry about congestion, potholes, et cetera. It's just people assume
that all that should come naturally."
The times when taxpayers and politicians have readily supported major infrastructure projects were times when there were glaring needs for local communities or the country as a whole.
Take interstate highways: Tremendous support existed for the interstate highway system when initial plans were being debated, says Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, a history of the interstate highway system. That's in part because the highway system didn't yet exist and answered the problem of massive traffic snarls in and around cities. Legislators and taxpayers recognized the need for such a system.
"I don't think there was a great deal of debate on the need [for the interstates]," Swift says. "They promised a lot of solutions for a lot of different problems: They put people to work, they delivered the promise of economic growth, and the idea you could get to work on a sparkling new highway was powerfully attractive."
Other major projects—the Golden Gate Bridge, New Deal dam projects, and various major metropolitan water systems—secured public funding as the need for such construction was presented and justified to the public, whether for transportation, power, or health and safety reasons.
Money to upgrade or repair such systems is sometimes hard to come by, however, especially when neither voters nor the politicians they elect recognize the limits of infrastructure nor will commit to long-term solutions. Why spend public money on a system that currently works, voters ask.
When members of Congress play politics with infrastructure spending, then roads, sewers, and bridges start to crumble, says one construction and real estate lawyer.
It's easy to say a bridge, dam, or water treatment plant is functioning properly when the elected official speaking is likely out of office in two or four years, says Barry LePatner, a construction lawyer and author of the book Too Big To Fall, his look at how to fix infrastructure funding. The transitory nature of public office, especially at the federal level, means decision-makers don't think in the long term.
"We built a fabulous infrastructure in this country," LePatner says. "Increasingly, politicians have turned away almost entirely from seriously giving infrastructure a great deal of thought." It's easy to say a bridge that's stood for 40 years won't fall, especially if you'll be out of office within three more years, he says.
Fault doesn't rest entirely with the politicos, some argue. Those politicians, most times, are simply responding to what their constituents believe, says John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. AASHTO polls show voters believe the gasoline taxes and water tap fees they pay go a disproportionately long way to funding the upkeep and expansion of infrastructure systems and therefore do not need to be expanded, especially in a limping economy, he says.
As prices for repairs and materials increase, and charges like gasoline taxes fail to keep pace, such payments do less and less to maintain an increasingly costly infrastructure.
"Most citizens have no clue what is needed in terms of cash flow in a given state to maintain highways, bridges, and other transportation," he says.
Those voters also overestimate what they already pay for infrastructure maintenance and expansion. Combined, the viewpoints mean most voters believe there's enough money in federal and state budgets to adequately maintain roads, bridges, and other infrastructure even though groups like AASHTO and ASCE have identified massive spending deficits.
There was political debate on infrastructure in the past, just not what we have today. Congress debated the official creation of the federal interstate highway system in the early 1950s for sure, Swift says. What they debated, however, was how to pay for it, not whether it was needed or necessary.
Now, federal spending on infrastructure is a political issue, thanks to earmarks and boondoggles like the infamous Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere." When voters and politicians identify spending with pet projects, funding levels start to slide.
It wasn't just the Great Recession that dented infrastructure funding and spending. Voter sentiment has steadily helped chip away at them, too.
Before 2008, the amount of money earmarked for roads, bridges, and water infrastructure steadily declined as a proportion of national spending. Economic fears have made the situation worse.
Infrastructure spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has dropped from 3.1% in 1959 to 2.4% in 2007, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Analysis by Samuel Sherraden of the New America Foundation suggests a continued downward trend as federal and state spending cuts enacted during the most recent recession work their way into long-term spending plans and as materials costs increase with inflation.
Taxpayers don't want to spend money on something they don't think needs repair or something as vague as "infrastructure," says AASHTO's John Horsley. Usually, local or state taxes for roads or sewers are approved only when local officials specifically lay out what projects will be funded and how they'll improve service in the jurisdiction. This tactic tends to work in densely populated areas where more taxpayers can see the effects of infrastructure improvement and failure, he says.
"[Taxpayers] know what they're going to get," Horsley says of project-specified tax levies and referenda. "They can figure out in their own minds that, if a road is improved or a bridge built, what they'll see is better transportation."
Taxes are immediate, and infrastructure's returns are long-term. Therefore, an infrastructure tax, whether for a sewer system or development of a port, is viewed by most taxpayers solely as a cost to avoid, not an investment, says Andrew Herrmann, P.E., president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. And when taxpayers are still feeling the effects of a down economy, any new tax, and many existing ones, is the target of voter ire.
This ire can put the brakes on needed infrastructure maintenance and upgrades even though maintenance and upgrades could bolster the weak economy that voters cite in defeating infrastructure funding.
More investment in infrastructure could boost the amount of tax revenue coming into the system, Herrmann says. His group's 2009 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the most recent, showed an increase of over 243,000 jobs if infrastructure investment is increased. Transportation costs for many industries would decrease, improving efficiency and, hopefully, productivity. Without needed infrastructure repairs and maintenance, quality of life, productivity, air quality, and ultimately employment, would all continue to decline.
Getting politicians and voters to think beyond the next month or next election is tough even with data like that, he says.
"It seems like a no-brainer, but it's hard to get people to understand," Herrmann says.
It's been more popular, however, to pursue new projects in the name of economic development and political cronyism than to maintain existing infrastructure that already bolsters the economy, LePatner says. He argues that politicians have used vague "transportation" or "infrastructure" funding as a type of federal or state rewards system for fundraisers and other political supporters, the same earmarks and pork-barrel spending vilified in recent election cycles.
When voters and taxpayers see such behavior, they're less likely to support money for needed projects, he says. That, combined with an unwillingness to propose new taxes or spending in the first place, means there's little will to tackle this important health, safety, and welfare issue.
"We're not reinvesting in this country. We need to double-down on the commitments we make to restore this nation's greatness," LePatner says.
This brings the story to the most recent, election-year debate on transportation spending. Members of the House and Senate passed a 90-day extension of the current transportation spending plan at the end of March. It's the ninth extension of the current transportation bill, which was slated to expire in 2009. The Senate passed a $109 billion transportation and infrastructure bill in early March, but House members failed to vote on it before the March 31 deadline for the existing transportation bill.
Even though the Senate passed the two-year, $109 billion bill, experts say that would have been a drop in the bucket for what infrastructure needs. ASCE's infrastructure report card calls for $2.2 trillion over five years to address current infrastructure needs. Each time ASCE releases a new report card, that number jumps up.
Key players aren't optimistic that a long-term deal will be passed in this, an election year. Pitching new spending when voters still aren't convinced it's needed is political suicide for politicians seeking reelection. They won't use the tough talk needed to sell funding for infrastructure that protects a high standard of living and safety, LePatner says.
And the caustic, antitax climate that seems to permeate all political discussions means it's unlikely to come up again until after the November presidential and congressional elections, if at all, Horsley says.
"If you're a politician, it's never a comfortable vote
to increase taxes," Horsley says.
AASHTO is focusing its efforts on local elections. For example, a July referendum in Georgia will ask voters to divide their state into 12 districts and choose whether they want to enact a 1-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax in those districts. They hope to help such a tax pass as it did in California and Minnesota.
ASCE will release its next infrastructure report card in early 2013, Herrmann says. Engineers will then know who controls the White House and Congress and can start afresh, lobbying and influencing Washington to do something about infrastructure. Until then, pushing to get the I-word into political debates and other newsworthy events—like President Barack Obama's mention of the report card in his State of the Union speech—will hopefully make infrastructure funding and its importance part of the national conversation.
LePatner says the public must realize the dire consequences of failing to fund infrastructure rehabilitation and maintenance. Disasters like the I-35 West bridge collapse must be kept fresh in the public's mind to remind them what happens when maintenance and oversight are not funded.
"God forbid someone you know is on that bridge," he says.