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29 December 2009

Sensible Stimulus

infrastructure: the roads, bridges, rail lines, power grid, and similar public works that are required for an industrial economy to function

I know enough about government to never expect too much, but when the federal stimulus package was proposed, I envisioned a large investment in highways, bridges, dams, and other civil works projects. I won’t pretend to understand the economics or details of the public works programs of the 1930s, but there are countless examples of well-designed, useful, long-lasting projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). My own state, Minnesota, has numerous state park buildings, highways, dams, bridges, and utilities that were built seventy years ago and remain in service today.

The subject of my article, “Return on Investment”, was the ancient buildings I saw while on vacation in Europe, and how they continue to be useful today. This month, we’ll look at more recent construction, particularly the infrastructure that supports our lifestyle.
In December 2009, I finally joined the twentieth century and had satellite TV installed in our house. We had talked about it for a couple of years, but saw little reason to increase the sources of garbage available from five channels to more than a hundred. The few channels we were interested in - Discovery, Food, HGTV, and History - were not quite tempting enough to entice us into dealing with all the rest. Also, I had a fear of spending all my waking hours watching the History Channel. The deciding factor turned out to be financial; we could get a bundle with phone, unlimited long distance calls, DSL, and HDTV for less than we were paying.

And sure enough, I’ve been captivated by the History and Discovery Channels. One of the recent shows, The Crumbling of America, was fascinating - and chilling. Opening with the collapse of the I35W bridge in 2007, the show went on to look at the potential for catastrophe in virtually every part of our infrastructure. Much of what we have was built in the early part of the twentieth century, with a design life of fifty years. The continued serviceability of that work is a tribute to the engineering and construction quality of that time, and though service life can be extended with regular inspection and maintenance, there comes a time when replacement is necessary. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier, and more fun, to build new than to maintain existing buildings; I believe most of us have seen that the maintenance budget is often the first to be cut.

Needless to say, I was disappointed by the stimulus program’s small investment in infrastructure. Of the $770 billion (or is it a trillion? or two trillion?), about $140 billion is earmarked for transportation, water projects, construction and repair of buildings, and upgrading the electric grid.
That sounds like a lot of money, but how much is needed? Those most likely to know are the civil engineers, who are most familiar with the design and maintenance of the systems in question. And indeed, they have something to say. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has a website named “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure”. The ASCE website discusses fifteen infrastructure components, giving each a letter grade, the amount of money needed to bring it up to date, and the amount of money already budgeted. The highest grade is a C+; the average is a D. The total recommended investment, over five years, is $2.2 trillion, approximately twice the amount budgeted from all sources. Another look at infrastructure costs is found at "America's Infrastructure Really Is Crumbling". This one estimates over $3 trillion is required, with almost $2 trillion going to just roads and bridges.

To me, the logic of making this type of investment a high priority is inescapable; there is little value in other stimulus spending if the services we depend on fail. Sadly, it seems the money isn’t available to do the necessary maintenance until a levee or a bridge fails, when legal fees and cleaning up the mess further increase the costs.

It’s easy to say, “You think that only because you’re an architect,” but that’s not true. While a few architects would profit to some extent, engineers and contractors would be the main immediate beneficiaries. Of far greater value would be the indirect benefits to the countless others whose lives depend on services that work.

The importance of our utilities and transportation systems hasn’t been entirely ignored. In 1998, President Clinton’s Presidential Directive PDD-63 set up a national program of "Critical Infrastructure Protection", which was superseded in 2003 by President Bush’s HSPD-7 (Homeland Security Presidential Directive No. 7) - but the focus of these directives is on protection from attack, and on reconstruction after an attack. Perhaps a smart terrorist would simply wait until our infrastructure collapses from neglect.

1 comment:

  1. The infrastructure problem is getting worse. A few weeks ago, a bridge near Green Bay, WI, that was not on the watch, suddenly sagged.