Dealing With What We Can: What the I-5 Collapse Reminds Us Of

We’ve had another bridge collapse, this time on the I-5 in Washington State.  So we can, for the moment, get away from debating natural disasters and discuss something we just might be able to do something about: fix our deteriorating transportation infrastructure.

I’ll repeat what I said about this six years ago, after the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota:

The American Society of Civil Engineers routinely puts out its Infrastructure Report Card on the state of the “physical plant” that allows this country to physically function.  The grade is inevitably low.  Since so much depends on the state of the infrastructure, and considering the fact that virtually everyone comes in contact with it on a daily basis, the serious question is, “why has this been permitted?”  In the case of roads, the U.S. has not made a broad-based, major investment in the system since the completion of the Interstate system.

There are two interrelated reasons for this.

The first is that most of the budget of state and federal governments is committed to entitlements of one kind or another, i.e., direct payments or transfer of wealth.  This leaves little for what is referred to as “discretionary” spending, and transportation generally falls into that category.  Events such as this cast aspersions on the concept of transportation spending as discretionary, but that’s the way it’s done.

The second is that transportation, like education, is an investment in the future.  And it’s easier for people to send resources into the future if they’re sending children there.  But, with a declining birthrate, people are less likely to want to commit resources–to say nothing of the NIMBY reaction–to something they have no personal interest in.  It’s no accident that the development of the Interstate system corresponded with the Baby Boom, and its completion with the end of that boom.  Now it’s simply easier to transfer money for immediate use (entitlements) than to go through the long term pain of infrastructure development.

But the general productivity of our economic system depends upon its transportation system.  This is one place where public works can actually have a private return on the investment.  If the U.S. wants to remain the pre-eminent country on the planet, it can’t just rely on dollar hegemony to get the job done.  A crumbling transportation infrastructure will in the long run become a drag on the nation’s ability to compete, which in turn will affect the quality of life that Americans are obsessed with.

The big difference between then and now is that Americans have become more resigned to a lower economic state.  The birth rate has also dropped since that time.

All of the whining we have these days about “acts of God” such as tornadoes and other natural disasters must be considered in the context of a people who don’t care enough to invest and prevent disasters that they actually could minimise.

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