Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why are our Bridges Falling Down? The Economics of the Infrastructure Deficit.

Tonight I turned on the news to learn that a major bridge over the Skagit River on Washingon State’s I-5 had fallen down. The bridge is not far from where I live. I have driven over it more times than I like to think. Why did it fall?

The proximate cause is clear: A large truck, carrying an oversize load, hit a crucial girder and the whole thing collapsed. The economic cause is also clear: Our political leaders are so obsessed with one isolated part of the national balance sheet—the balance of the federal government’s financial assets and liabilities—that they have not noticed other, even larger threats to our national balance sheet. Like infrastructure deficit.

There are a lot of things we do not yet know about today’s event, but one thing is clear: The bridge that fell down was “structurally obsolete.” Washington State authorities insist that the bridge was well maintained, and certainly, in my many trips across it, I have seen no rusty girders nor felt any ominous vibrations.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s Deborah Hersman explained to CNN’s Wolf Bltizer what structurally obsolete meant for this particular bridge, which was designed in 1954 and built in 1955 when traffic on the I-5 corridor between Seattle and Vancouver was a fraction of what it is today. A new bridge would have shoulders; this one did not. A new bridge would have had more overhead clearance. On the face of it, either of these features would seem sufficient to have prevented the accident.

So why are we sending 21st century highway traffic across Elvis Presley era Interstate bridges? The answer is simple: We are not spending enough to stay even with our infrastructure deficit. Our bridges, roads, dams, electric grid, sewers, and water treatment plants are wearing out faster than we are replacing them. And that is happening, in large part, because of our misguided obsession with the federal fiscal deficit.

A good starting point to understand what is going on is to ask why we are concerned with the budget deficit in the first place. The cliché is that we do not want to be the first generation to leave our children a national balance sheet with a thinner margin between assets and liabilities than we inherited from our parents. >>>Read more

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