The Looming Infrastructure Crisis

Financial, policy and political problems are hurting efforts to fix our infrastructure.
April 2010
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
The Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

It didn't take long for Scott Brown, the newly elected senator from Massachusetts, to go from tea party darling to Republican rogue. When he cast a vote for the $15 billion jobs bill, his Facebook page quickly filled with complaints that he was trading in his pickup truck for a liberal limousine.

The jobs bill that created political potholes for Brown was also aimed at filling some of the nation's nastiest infrastructure potholes. The looming crisis is no secret to drivers in Minnesota's Twin Cities who got stuck in hopeless traffic following the 2007 collapse of the I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River, or to San Francisco Bay Area commuters mired in gridlock when the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge emergency repairs failed and the bridge was shut down. Riders of Washington, D.C.'s troubled subway system have suffered through collisions, derailments and maintenance problems, and four U.S. senators warned that the system had suffered "an institutional failure."

The problem is huge--and it's growing. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that the nation faces a $2.2 trillion infrastructure backlog. One of every eight bridges is "structurally deficient," and 85 percent of public transit systems are struggling to carry the growing number of riders. As ASCE President Blaine D. Leonard puts it, "We are still driving on Eisenhower's roads and sending our kids to Roosevelt's schools."

The problem isn't just devilish. It's stuck in a devil's triangle of cross-pressures conspiring to make a solution incredibly tough. On one side of the triangle is the deep and ongoing state budget crisis. Job recovery from the Great Recession is slow, and so too is the revival in state revenues. Medicaid continues to drain state budgets, and the hemorrhage is increasing as aging baby boomers begin drifting into government-funded nursing homes. Rising public debt, especially from the feds, threatens to crowd out other spending. The Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association pointed to the risk of a "lost decade" for state government, with an ongoing budget crunch hanging state policy. It's time, the center warned, to redesign "state government for the new normal." Will this new normal have room for infrastructure repair before more bridges crumple, roads crumble and mass transit stumbles?

On the triangle's second side is the feds' struggle to figure out what national transportation policy should look like. In the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation focused on reducing congestion. Anyone caught in a rush-hour clog--and the ASCE estimates that we spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic--can certainly applaud that goal. The Barack Obama administration, as part of its urban policy agenda and Vice President Joe Biden's middle-class initiative, has tried to integrate this goal into a broader focus on the quality of life. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has honed the department in on creating "livable communities, the hometowns Americans deserve."

The two strategies are related, but haven't run parallel. That's made it hard for the transportation department to set a clear course through the devil's triangle. And in both cases, the national strategies are miles above the bridge, roads, buses and subways below. That's made it hard for the feds to link their broad strategies to the operating realities of state and local infrastructure managers. Most of the nation's transportation system is a federal-state-local hybrid. The feds provided most of the funds to build the original interstate system, create mass transit systems, and help with highway and bridge repair. But the feds have sidestepped the big question of how much of the looming infrastructure problem they want to own--and fund.

On the triangle's third side is Congress, where all politics is local and all transportation debates are tactical. Congress funded infrastructure because the Obama administration needed a quick win to demonstrate its commitment to jobs. Members of Congress voted for the bill because it funneled money into the right congressional districts. Of course, roads have been handed out as pork as long as Congress has been dipping into the barrel. The problem is that Congress' penchant for seeing transportation as pork steers money to flashy new projects and away from repairing of crumbling infrastructure. That makes it tough to put wheels on any effort to deal with the growing repair backlog, and it guarantees Congress will become even more reactive to the infrastructure crises we can't escape.

It's the job of engineers and planners to build strategies. It's the job of politicians to find ways of doing what needs to be done. "Infrastructure" is a label only wonks can love. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration solved that problem by championing the interstate highway system as a defense program, making it easier to move troops and supplies. But it's much tougher today. The nation's transportation future depends on sailing through a Bermuda Triangle of states with no money, federal planners with shifting strategies, and a Congress that seems able to act only if projects are converted to pork. That's a rickety plan for rebuilding an infrastructure that will only crumble if it's not fixed.