Despite Outcry, Our Infrastructure is Not Crumbling

Skagit Bridge

In the aftermath of last week’s bridge collapse in Washington state, there have been a number of news reports and editorials on the need to address “America’s crumbling infrastructure” and they’ve declared that Congress needs to take action.

“It’s almost as if Washington has seen this movie before: a bridge collapses, groups decry the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and Congress does nothing,” lamented Abby Phillip at ABC News. John Nichols of the leftist publication The Nation carried the water of labor unions, and asked, “Is Washington ready to listen to the people who have been saying for years that we can’t afford to keep neglecting and shortchanging our nation’s infrastructure?”

Brian Levin of the Huffington Post was even more direct. He declared a state of emergency, writing that [w]e should treat our decaying infrastructure as the national security threat that it is and dispatch troops to the ground.”

“And by troops, I mean the million-man strong regiment of unemployed construction workers — 13.2 percent of people in the industry,” he added. “There is no logical reason why anyone from any party or persuasion would oppose the president’s plan, except to say that it should go even further.”

Hyperbole, much?

Before you listen to the warnings and the doom and gloom picture being painted of our nation’s infrastructure, consider for a moment that they’re blowing smoke.

Take the bridge that collapsed in Washington state, for example. Media reports and columnists have frequently noted that the bridge was “functionally obsolete,” but Paula Hammond, the former chief of the Washington DOT, told Governing Magazine that the bridge “isn’t the example” of crumbling infrastructure:

She says even if the agency had vastly more resources, that bridge still wouldn’t have been a priority because it wasn’t in poor condition. “I resist the notion that everyone says ‘this is why we need more revenue,’” Hammond says. “There’s a lot of reasons we need to invest… this isn’t the example.”

The bridge was rated 47 out of 100, according to the state transportation department, the Associated Press reports. But Hammond says that’s not a particularly bad rating, and the bridge wasn’t considered unsafe.
“Eventually, we probably would have gotten around to replacing it, but what we really were worried about and always were is the structural safety of these bridges,” Hammond says. And according to her, that wasn’t an issue with this crossing.

Despite what many would have us believe, the bridge didn’t collapse because it was structurally unsound. It happened because an oversized truck struck the bridge as it was crossing, causing it to collapse in the Skagit River.

Governing also spoke with Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation, who shed some light on ominous sounding terms, such as “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient,” that are being taken out of context by those reporting on or writing commentary about the bridge collapse:

While the bridge was rated as “functionally obsolete,” that doesn’t speak to its structural integrity. Instead, the term means the bridge is not able to adequately serve the level of traffic trying to use it. Schank says the term “is almost meaningless,” since it can be applied to just about any older bridge in a place that has seen population growth.

Importantly, the bridge wasn’t rated as “structurally deficient,” a term that means elements of a span need to be monitored or repaired but is sometimes inaccurately used to suggest a risk of imminent collapse. Schank says the term “tends to get overblown” too.

While John Nichols and Brian Levin are using this particular bridge collapse to push President Obama’s $50 billion, “Fix-it-First” infrastructure planGoverning notes that it “wouldn’t have prevented [the Washington bridge] collapse. Why? Because, as they note, it “wasn’t among the 70,000 structurally-deficient bridges the president mentioned.”

Randall O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, weighed in on the issue earlier this week. He notes that the emphasis on infrastructure overlooks the facts.

“[I]n the last two decades the number of structurally deficient bridges has declined by 44 percent, from more than 118,000 in 1992 to fewer than 67,000 in 2012, even as the total number of highway bridges increased from 572,000 to 607,000,” wrote O’Toole, who is an expert on transportation policy. “The number of fracture-critical bridges has declined from 22,000 in the last four years alone. In other words, the problem is going away without the help of a giant new federal program.”

So what’s behind the push for increased infrastructure spending? Unions want their workers to get the jobs, rent-seeking businesses want the contracting work, and politicians want pork for their districts. Basically, it’s Washington. They don’t worry about budget deficits and the $16.7 trillion national debt. They want their core crony constituencies to reap the benefits of new infrastructure spending.

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