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"Crumbling infrastructure" is a mindless meme [ClearOnMoney]
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"Crumbling infrastructure" is a mindless meme

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Commentary

"Crumbling infrastructure" is a mindless meme

3 Oct 2010 by Jim Fickett.

There seems to be little real evidence that the condition of US infrastructure is worsening. The main quantitative data available, from the Federal Highway Administration, is unreliable, but at least one quantitative study from the data shows overall improvement in conditions. Many investors believe “crumbling infrastructure” is one of the important trends of our time. That is probably wrong.

Dinosaurs “roamed the earth”. They didn't walk, stand, or run. They roamed. It's a required word. In the same way, if an article mentions infrastructure these days, it must be “crumbling infrastructure”. Reporters can thus show that they are informed on the issues. They know, because everyone else knows, that our infrastructure is crumbling.

But where is the evidence? What, in fact, does “crumbling infrastructure” even mean? Yes, the bridge in Minnesota did fail. Yes, there are potholes in San Francisco. Yes, the levees protecting New Orleans failed. No one can doubt that there are infrastructure areas where maintenance or improvement is definitely needed. That, unfortunately, is the case in every age and in every nation. “Crumbling” suggests that things are worse now than they were before. Is this true?

The American Society of Civil Engineers periodically publishes a Report Card for the nation's infrastructure. In 2009, when they reported a “Grade Point Average” of “D”, the newspapers all dutifully passed on the news. But what does this mean? There is no methodology given, and the accompanying video just says the grades are embarrassing, without saying where they came from. There is a document, apparently for those meeting with the press, that starts out (this is not a joke) with 6 suggested “SOUNDBITES”. But in 11 pages of expanded messages to convey, there is still no information about where the grades come from or whether they actually measure something objective.

If the ASCE has any real evidence, they are hiding it well. I'll say this for the ASCE – at least they are willing to admit that they have a massive conflict of interest. From the document:

POTENTIAL AGGRESSIVE QUESTIONS

Isn’t this just a question of funding for civil engineers? Don’t you find that issuing this progress report is self-serving?

The ASCE, and several other groups that write about infrastructure, depend on data from the Federal Highway Administration, within the Department of Transportation. For example, all states are required to periodically inspect their bridges and report the results to the FHWA, which compiles the results in the National Bridge Inventory. You might think you could get some clear idea, at least, of whether the safety of the nation's bridges is improving or worsening, from these data.

There is a good chance that you would be wrong:

When the I-35W bridge collapsed a year ago in Minneapolis, federal officials immediately requested an emergency inspection of every similar bridge in the nation. There was just one problem: No one knew how many there were.

At first, officials thought there were 756 steel deck truss bridges like the one that fell. That's how many they found in the official federal database of bridges, the National Bridge Inventory, which gets its records from the states. Then state engineers found 32 more to add to the list.

But when states started the inspections, they found that 280 of the bridges weren't steel deck trusses at all— including 13 bridges made of wood timbers. Another 16 no longer existed; a bridge in Pennsylvania had been closed in 1982. Another 11 were private bridges, not subject to federal inspection. One in New Mexico was a pedestrian bridge. And a bridge in Pennsylvania had been double counted; federal officials had placed an identical ghost bridge in Maryland. …

The “data is not as good as we thought,” Thomas D. Everett, team leader of the bridge program at the Federal Highway Administration, wrote in “Issues of Concern,” a slide show for safety experts on Jan. 13.

Every serious discussion of the state of the nation's infrastructure that I've been able to find does lead back to the FHWA. So the data, though apparently not very good, may the be best available. Does that data, taken at face value, indicate that the condition of nation's infrastructure is worsening? As a matter of fact, probably not.

The Reason Foundation does an annual report on the condition of state-owned highways, much of which is based on the FHWA data. The most recent one says

Individual system elements (roads, bridges, pavements) deteriorate over time, but the overall condition of the state-owned highway system has never been in better shape. The overall condition of state-owned highways continued to improve from 2007 to 2008. All seven key indicators of system condition showed improvement, including large gains in urban interstate condition, rural arterial condition, deficient bridges and fatality rates. Even urban interstate congestion, which had been slowly improving, registered a substantial improvement.

I suspect that what is really going on is that all of us have to travel some road regularly that has a rusty bridge, or a series of annoying potholes, or a crumbling curb or traffic barrier. And so, annoyed daily by this experience, we are predisposed to believe the “crumbling infrastructure” meme. But the evidence, while not very strong in either direction, suggests that in fact infrastructure is improving.

If there is solid evidence that our infrastructure, at the national aggregate level, is actually worsening in any material way, I would very much like to hear about it.