WASHINGTON – I understand how immigration reform may have fallen victim of deep ideological divisions. But roads and bridges maintenance? Yes, even roads and bridges upkeep, an absolutely necessary, non controversial activity in a sane country now is hostage to strident partisan bickering in America.
Old infrastructure needs urgent repairs
Here is the situation. While it was good for America to construct and upgrade its basic (mostly transportation related) infrastructure a long time ago, the bad news is that much of what was built in the 1950s and 1960s is old, in some instances decrepit. According to some estimates, 63,000 bridges are in need of major interventions so that they can be recertified as structurally sound.
Old, really old
The aging of our bridges and highways is a well documented fact. Many national professional groups of civil engineers have pointed this out. They have also pointed out that current and projected funding to attend to the straightforward but expensive task of performing major repairs and upgrades is grossly inadequate.
Some think tanks and other research centers have made suggestions about new financing modalities, (PPPs, an Infrastructure Bank, among several tried and tested tools), that could help expedite the execution of this most urgent task.
Therefore, all of us, and policy-makers first and foremost, are on notice that we have a crumbling infrastructure ticking bomb. Indeed, given aging structures and inadequate funding for even minimal repairs, sooner or later we are going to have some major disaster. Sooner or later a bridge will collapse, probably causing major accidents and loss of life.
Not to mention that aging infrastructure is bad for business. Old highways mean more time needed to go from point A to point B. And time is money.
Well, given the urgency of all this, there should be a way for Democrats and Republicans in Washington to agree on a workable national plan, vetted by experts, that would get us started on a program of major repairs, beginning with the most urgent cases.
Public spending is bad
But no, this is not going to happen. In large part this has to do with a conservative bias against any kind of “public spending”. Since most public spending is politically motivated and in the end wasteful, they argue, why authorize more infrastructure spending that most likely will result in the diversion of funds to low priority, but politically sensitive projects? And we all know that there will be favoritism in allocating contracts; so that the net result will be huge cost overruns.
Well, some of these objections are well grounded. Yes, we have seen many “bridges to nowhere”. We know that the allocation of federal funds for public works at times follows mysterious routes that often have nothing to do with meeting real needs.
However, even if we concede all of the above, we still have a crumbling infrastructure problem. Are the conservatives really saying that, since the system (in their view) is too corrupt, then the smart thing to do is to do nothing at all? Yes, this is pretty much what they are saying.
Indeed, a well known conservative TV commentator days ago argued, with a straight face, that not a cent should be spent on repairing US roads and bridges until we have a new, fully transparent system for allocating funds and until we have full accountability of all the money allocated to previous and current projects.
Imagine that. Let’s have a full and complete audit of everything that has been spent, in all 50 states, before we can authorize any additional money for roads and bridges. That should take only a week or two, right?
The crisis is still here
Again, I am not dismissing the allegations about questionable projects that have been executed on the basis of political pressure rather than need. I am not saying that cost overruns do not exist.
Still, we have a real crisis in our hands. We have literally thousands of bridges that need major, sometimes urgent repairs. Is it really impossible to address this very real national emergency without transforming it into yet another ideological diatribe?