Taking infrastructure for granted

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Unlike traditional utilities, roads and bridges have no rate payers to fall back on. Politicians and the public seem to attach a low priority to fixing aging transportation infrastructure and this translates into a lack of support for raising fuel taxes or imposing tolls.” –C. Kenneth Orski, noted public policy consultant and 30-year veteran transportation expert

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Ken Orski (at right) is no stranger to this space. Indeed, Orski – who served as associate administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and now publishes a transportation newsletter – has forgotten more about transportation and infrastructure needs than most folks know.

He recently penned an interesting column for Public Works Financing, noting that U.S. infrastructure needs – from water and sewer systems to roadways and bridges – are floundering in a sea of ignorance.

Indeed, a column written in the Washington Post by Charles Lane last year – and the writers who vigorously responded to him – puts in sharp relief the attitude of most Americans when it comes to the state of our roadways and bridges: they seem to look OK, so why do we need to spend money on them?

“Indeed, investment in infrastructure did not even make the top ten list of public priorities in the latest Pew Research Center survey of domestic concerns, Orski noted, adding that calls by two Congressionally-mandated commissions to vastly increase transportation infrastructure spending have also gone largely ignored.

“Antiquated municipal water and sewer systems are indeed a ticking bomb – all the more so since their deterioration, unlike that of highways and bridges – remains invisible until a break occurs,” he wrote.

[That, by the way, is a huge issue, noted the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in a recent video missive on the subject.]

“But maintaining water and sewer infrastructure in a state of good repair is a fairly straightforward challenge. Water supply and sewers are a public utility and as such they can cover their maintenance and replacement costs through user fees,” Orski explained. “So can many other public services such as electricity, natural gas, broadband and telecommunications. The ability to charge for service – and to raise rates as necessary – assures public utilities a steady and reliable stream of revenue with which to maintain, preserve and grow their assets.”

Not so with transportation. “Finding the resources to keep transportation infrastructure in good order is a more difficult challenge,” Orski said. “The oft-cited ‘D’ that the ASCE has given America’s infrastructure – along with an estimate of $2.2 trillion needed to fix it – is taken with a grain of salt, since the engineers’ lobby is seen as having a vested interest in increasing infrastructure spending, which means more work for engineers. So do the legions of road and transit builders, rail and road equipment manufacturers, construction firms, planners and consultants that try to make a case for more money.”

This does not mean that the country doesn’t need to invest more resources in preserving and expanding its highways and transit systems, Orski stressed. “The ‘infrastructure deficit’ is real. It’s just that in making a case for higher spending, the transportation community must do a much better job of explaining why, how and where they propose to spend those funds,” he explained.

[In an interview with the Financial Times, Lee McIntire, chief executive of CH2M Hill, pointed out that far less of the “stimulus money” Congress authorized to be spent after President Obama’s inauguration got spent on infrastructure work than many may realize.]

There are various theories why appeals to increase infrastructure spending do not resonate with the public, he noted. “One widely held view is that people simply do not trust the federal government to spend their tax dollars wisely,” Orski said. “As proof, evidence is cited that a great majority of state and local transportation ballot measures do get passed, because voters know precisely where their tax money is going.”

Another explanation is that the American public is skeptical about alarmist claims of “crumbling infrastructure" because they see no evidence of it around them, he pointed out. “State DOTs and transit authorities take great pride in maintaining their systems in good condition and, by and large, they succeed in doing a good job of it,” Orski added. “Potholes are rare, transit buses and trains seldom break down, and collapsing bridges, happily, are few and far between.”

He suggests, then, as people want to know where their tax dollars are going and what exactly they’re getting for their money, infrastructure advocates must learn to justify and document the needs for federal dollars with more precision so that the public regains confidence that their money will be spent wisely and well, because unsupported claims that the nation’s infrastructure is "falling apart" will not be taken seriously.

Infrastructure is a big deal, for it makes up both the framework and engine that drives our nation. But fixing it is by no means an overwhelming issue. Indeed, America’s heritage hearkens always to the ability of its diverse peoples to overcome any number of challenges … a spirit most recently encapsulated in the most recent television commercial produced by Chrysler:

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