Critiquing infrastructure needs

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I expected better of a professional engineering organization.” –Robert Poole, director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at the Reason Foundation

The debate over the amount of tax dollars required to upgrade U.S. infrastructure is huge – and has seismic ramifications for the trucking industry.

Obviously, without roads and bridges, trucks don’t move. But it’s more than that – it’s about whether we upgrade infrastructure to handle heavier trucks; adding more capacity to reduce congestion; and making sure we invest enough on an ongoing basis to keep the roads and bridges we currently have in good shape.

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For years, to help me understand the scope of infrastructure issues, I’ve relied in part on the beefy Report Card for America’s Infrastructure published every so often by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The 2009 report card – released in January – painted a very gloomy picture, assigning a cumulative grade of D to the nation’s infrastructure and noting a five-year investment need of $2.2 trillion from all levels of government and the private sector.

D. Wayne Klotz, P.E., ASCE’s president, said that since the group’s last assessment in 2005 there has been little change in the condition of the nation’s roads, bridges, drinking water systems and other public works – and the cost of improvement has increased by more than half a trillion dollars.

“Crumbling infrastructure has a direct impact on our personal and economic health, and the nation’s infrastructure crisis is endangering our future prosperity,” he noted. “Our leaders are looking for solutions to the nation’s current economic crisis. Not only could investment in these critical foundations have a positive impact, but if done responsibly, it would also provide tangible benefits to the American people, such as reduced traffic congestion, improved air quality, clean and abundant water supplies and protection against natural hazards.”

These are all good things, of course. But is the analysis correct? As we begin spending billions and billions of dollars we as a nation don’t have on all sorts of infrastructure projects, we need to ask ourselves: is all of this money REALLY necessary?

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I stumbled on just such a critique in a blog entry from Robert Poole (pictured at left), director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at the Reason Foundation.

Lest you think he’s just some wild-eyed crank, let it be known that Poole is not only an MIT-trained engineer; he’s advised the previous four presidential administrations on transportation and policy issues.

And if he says the investment dollars required might be inflated, it might be a good idea to keep the public cash register closed for a long moment of review.

“I've been beating the drums for more (but smarter) investment in America's infrastructure ever since the multi-volume report of the National Council on Public Works Improvement back in 1988. So it may seem odd for me to suggest that you take with a grain of salt the latest 'report card' on the subject, released last month by the ASCE,” he said.

“This is their fifth such effort, with previous ones appearing 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2005,” Poole noted. “Compared with 2005, aviation, roads, and transit have all been slightly downgraded in the 2009 version, either from D+ to D (aviation) or from D to D- (roads and transit), while bridges remained stable at grade of C. Only energy (the power grid) got a slight upgrade in the 2009 edition.”

His concern is less with the letter grade than with the accompanying spending recommendations, yet even the changes in the letter grades in surface transportation are -- in his words -- a bit curious. "Over the past decade, we have seen a steady reduction in the percentage of deficient bridges, yet that improvement is not reflected in the unchanged C grade from 2001 through 2009. Likewise, there have been fairly steady decreases in rough or pot-holed pavements since 1998, yet the highway grade has declined from D+ in 2001 to D- in 2009," he said.

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To be sure, Poole stressed, highway performance includes congestion, not just pavement condition, and congestion has gotten steadily worse, at least until 2008's combination of high fuel prices and recession reduced national vehicle miles of travel. But most troubling to Poole are ASCE's spending recommendations – really the point of their massive report card, after all.

“In the highway field, [the report card] cites current capital spending of $70.3 billion per year as inadequate – and I agree,” he explained. “But the most objective source of how much would make sense to spend is the Federal Highway Administration's periodic ‘Conditions and Performance’ report. The most recent edition, from which the $70.3 billion current figure comes, finds that to maintain current performance the nation should be investing $78.8 billion in highways and bridges (an increase of $8.5 billion/year), and to improve performance, the total should be $131.7 billion.

Yet the ASCE report offers a “need” for $186 billion per year – some $54 billion more ANNUALLY, with no justification, said Poole, who noted he could not find a link to an actual report that explains the underlying analysis of ASCE’s calculations.

“There's a lot of hype and calls to action, but neither the current report nor any of the previous ones appears to be a public document, open to scrutiny by transportation researchers,” he pointed out. “Needless to say, this leads me to worry that rather than being a serious attempt to quantify real ‘investment’ needs, this is primarily an exercise in advocacy of more tax dollars committed to infrastructure spending, whether it makes sense in benefit/cost terms or not.”

However, it’s important to stress here that Poole’s critique of ASCE’s infrastructure report card does NOT mean we should torpedo heavy investment altogether – far from it. The question he asks – and it is VERY important – is how much do we REALLY need to spend. This is absolutely critical as the U.S. is in a gargantuan black fiscal hole nearly $11 trillion deep … and getting deeper every day. At some point, we’ve got to pay that off, and the easiest way to start doing that would be NOT spending any more than we must to begin with.

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