Stop Bleating About Crumbling Infrastructure

It seems that after 32 years and tens of billions of Federal funding that the nations bridges are still crumbling and in grave disrepair. In fact, according to DOT and the industry lobbies there are 63,000 bridges across the nation that are “structurally deficient”, suggesting that millions of motorists are at risk for a perilous dive into the drink.

But here’s the thing. Roughly one-third or 20,000 of these purportedly hazardous bridges are located in six rural states in America’s mid-section: Iowa, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. The fact that these states account for only 5.9% of the nation’s population seems more than a little incongruous but that isn’t even half the puzzle. It seems that these thinly populated country provinces have a grand total of 118,000 bridges. That is, one bridge for every 160 citizens—men, women and children included.

And the biggest bridge state among them is, well, yes, Iowa. The state has 3 million souls and nearly 25,000 bridges–one for every 125 people. So suddenly the picture is crystal clear. These are not the kind of bridges that thousands of cars and heavy duty trucks pass over each day. No, they are mainly the kind Clint Eastwood needed a local farm-wife to locate—so he could take pictures for a National Geographic spread on covered bridges.

Stated differently, the overwhelming bulk of the 600,000 so-called “bridges” in America are so little used that the are more often crossed by dogs, cows, cats and tractors than they are by passenger motorists.  They are essentially no different than local playgrounds and municipal parks. They have nothing to do with interstate commerce, GDP growth or national public infrastructure.

If they are structurally “deficient” as measured by engineering standards that is not exactly a mystery to the host village, township and county governments which choose not to upgrade them. So if Iowa is content to live with 5,000 bridges—one in five of its 25,000 bridges—that are deemed structurally deficient by DOT, why is this a national crisis? Self-evidently, the electorate and officialdom of Iowa do not consider these bridges to be a public safety hazard or something would have been done long ago.

The evidence for that is in another startling “fun fact” about the nation’s bridges.  Compared to the 19,000 so-called “structurally deficient” bridges in the six rural states reviewed here, there are also 19,000 such deficient bridges in another group of 35 states–including Texas, Maryland, Massachusetts,  Virginia, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Jersey and Wisconsin, among others. But these states have a combined population of 175 million not 19 million as in the six rural states; and more than 600 citizens per bridge, not 125 as in Iowa.

Moreover, only 7% of the bridges in these 35 states are considered to be structurally deficient rather than 21% as in Iowa. So the long and short of it is self-evident: Iowa still has a lot of one-horse bridges and Massachusetts— with 1,300 citizens per “bridge”— does not. None of this is remotely relevant to a national infrastructure crisis today—any more than it was in 1982 when even Ronald Reagan fell for “23,000 bridges in need of replacement or rehabilitation”.

Yes, the few thousands of bridges actually used heavily in commerce and passenger transportation in American do fall into disrepair and need  periodic reinvestment. But the proof that even this is an overwhelmingly state and local problem is evident in another list maintained by the DOT.

That list would be a rank ordering called “The Most Travelled Structurally Deficient Bridges, 2013″. These are the opposite of the covered bridges of Madison County, but even here there is a  cautionary tale. It seems that of the 100 most heavily traveled bridges in the US by rank order, and which are in need of serious repair, 80% of them are in California!

Moreover, they are overwhelmingly state highway and municipal road and street bridges located in Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire. Stated differently, Governor Moonbeam has not miraculously solved California endemic fiscal crisis; he’s just neglected the local infrastructure. There is no obvious reasons why taxpayers in Indiana or North Carolina needed to be fixing California’s bridges— so that it can continue to finance its outrageously costly public employee pension system.

And so it goes with the rest of the so-called infrastructure slate. There is almost nothing there that is truly national in scope and little that is in a state of crumbling and crisis.

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