Monday, November 2

Greetings from Banana Republic USA: Crumbling transportation infrastructure

David Knowles
at Sphere
SAN FRANCISCO (Oct. 29) -- Billions of dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are being spent on infrastructure projects across the country, but as this week's closing of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge shows, for every problem that gets addressed, it seems like 10 more are waiting.


For Wayne Klotz, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, any money allocated to updating the country's infrastructure is welcome. But he's also realistic about just how much the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act can do.

"Only 10 percent of the stimulus package went toward infrastructure. The percentage was relatively small. The primary purpose of the stimulus was to create jobs, not to improve infrastructure," he said.

In order to bring the country's infrastructure in line with past standards, ASCE estimates that the U.S. government would need to spend $2.2 trillion over the next 5 years. Asked to prioritize which areas of infrastructure he thinks need immediate attention, Klotz laughed.

"It's kind of like if your kid comes home with a report card with straight D's. Which subject do you start with? Take your pick. We've followed a 'patch and pray' method of infrastructure maintenance in this country. We don't have a single category that has a passing grade. [...]

President Barack Obama recently described the Recovery Act as "the largest investment in the nation's infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System." The stimulus plan targets "shovel ready" programs, those that don't require new permits or exhaustive planning. As a result, Klotz said, the approach provides much needed maintenance, but still misses the bigger mark.

"Back in the '50s, '60s and even the first part of the 1970s, the percentage of money we used to spend on infrastructure was 5 to 7 percent of the budget," Klotz said. "We built the best infrastructure system in the world. Now, we're lucky if we spend 1 to 2 percent."


Ross McKeown, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency charged with planning and financing infrastructure projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, said California's stimulus funds are not sufficient to meet the challenges that drastically falling revenues and neglected infrastructure maintenance have brought.

"The stimulus is a one-time, stop-gap measure that doesn't come close to solving the larger issue," McKeown said. "Really, it's just a drop in the bucket."

As Klotz sees it, such steps are vital if we intend to see our economy thrive in the future. "Transportation is our economy," he said. "If our transportation system doesn't work, our economy doesn't work."

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