More on crumbling infrastructure

by Russ Roberts on November 1, 2011

in Stimulus

Both Don and I have been skeptical about the claim (often advanced–surprise!–by engineers) that America’s infrastructure is crumbling. In the Washington Post, Charles Lane argues that the data used to support the crumbling claim are suspect. Superb.

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SmoledMan November 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Yet I keep hearing about America’s crumbling infrastructure from Krugman, Mark Thoma, and the rest of the Greek liberal chorus.

James Reade November 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Sure, if you already believe something, then some shoddy arguments that support what you already believe will go down just nicely. What the Washington Post article says is that you can deconstruct data and twist it as much as you like to make the point you want to make. Sure, we don’t want to compare US infrastructure to German infrastructure (who would?!), so let’s average it (without any weighting for geographic area, etc) with Romania and Bulgaria and other fine vessels in Eastern Europe, and then you get something out which looks better.

And why would US businessmen become more pessimistic than those in the rest of the world in 2008?

These are weak arguments at best, laughable at worst, and if I actually agreed with what this guy was saying, I’d be embarrassed to link to such stuff. I certainly wouldn’t endorse it with a “superb”.

SmoledMan November 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Imagine if we had spent that $2 trillion of Iraq War money on our infrastructure. We’d be up to par.

Bastiat Smith November 1, 2011 at 3:11 pm

For some reason, I don’t think we would be….

House of Cards & Economic Freedom November 1, 2011 at 3:22 pm

You’re an idiot. Compare the US with 500+ airports to another country with 500+ airports.

SmoledMan November 1, 2011 at 3:37 pm

You do realize flying these days is a hell on earth? TSA alone is the first gate of hell.

House of Cards & Economic Freedom November 1, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Stop stalling. Compare the US with 500+ airports to another country with 500+ airports.

Ken November 1, 2011 at 7:55 pm


The TSA isn’t a demonstration of a crumbling infrastructure. It’s a demonstration on how bad the government spends money.


GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 1, 2011 at 8:57 pm

(formerly Anotherphil)

Perfect example of opportunity cost.

Rob November 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm

I was also unimpressed by this article. His points about the EU strained credibility as he failed to distinguish (a sin he accuses others of) between those parts of the German and French infrastructure constructed before EU membership (remember the autobahn was a National Socialist project) and those that have benefited from it.

In additional, maybe Mr. Lane has superb eyes, but I will freely admit that when I wizz through and underpass as 70mph, I don’t really have time to glimpse much of the critical structural elements in order to make a fair assessment of their quality.

His point is well taken regarding the amazing achievement that the US has so much infrastructure but lets not forget his conclusion…the government needs to spend more money. I am uncomfortable every time Don or Russ point out how wonderful a particular article is that ends up making that statement. Perhaps this was a case of Russ believing that which spoke to his priors.

tkwelge November 2, 2011 at 2:03 am

critical thinking skills are critical thinking skills, and you don’t possess them in certain areas.

tkwelge November 2, 2011 at 2:04 am

I have no idea where my other comment came from. I accidentally copied and pasted something from another comment on a completely different page. And it wasn’t even a comment I made! WOw.

John Dewey November 1, 2011 at 5:11 pm

James Reade and Rob,

I may have a different perspective about comparisons of U.S. and European infrastructure.

My mother worked with highway engineers for 20 years. I remember her explaining how roadbuilding and maintenance costs varied tremendously across the nation depending on climate and soil condition. For example, the cost to prepare roadbeds in marshy south Louisana was many times greater than in limestone rocky north Texas. The damage from ice and salt in harsh winter climates was much more extreme in the north central U.S. than in Mississippi.

Geographically, the whole of Europe is much more like the U.S. than is any one of those small nations. If infrastructure costs do vary according to geography and climate, as my mother asserted, then comparing the U.S. to all of Europe might be more correct.

Rob November 1, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Fair enough. I was critiquing a narrower point though. The article made is seem as if all German and French infrastructure was built after 1951, 1957, or 1992 depending on his meaning of European Union.

Daniel Kuehn November 1, 2011 at 3:10 pm

This is great, thanks.

There is a lot in the science and engineering world that gets played up as a crisis that really isn’t. I’m most familiar with the labor force claims and am currently writing two chapters on these allegations of shortages in the engineering labor force (one for the profession generally, and one for petroleum engineers). Mostly it’s either insiders or people that really don’t understand what legitimately constitutes a “shortage”.

You talk a lot about how unscientific and inconsistent empirically economics is, but one of the really great things about working on these chapters is that I’ve dug into a literature that goes back to WWII (when there were worries about shortages of engineers for mobilization), and almost every single study (by economists) from the 1940s to the present on this question. Has concluded almost exactly the same thing: short-term shortages due to adjustment frictions (i.e. – time to get a degree), but quick convergence to equilibrium in response to price signals after that. There is simply no engineer or scientist shortage problem and there never has been (unless it’s a very short-term need in which case there is good evidence of the emergence of temporary shortages). “Conservative” and “liberal” economist alike has come up with this finding, and my co-author and I are confirming it with brand new data.

Now – I don’t think our infrastructure is crumbling, but I don’t think that means putting money into infrastructure is wasted – particularly at a time like this. But these doomsday stories are often promoted by people that don’t understand how the market works (or have an interest in obscuring it).

Darren November 1, 2011 at 4:41 pm

I don’t think that means putting money into infrastructure is wasted

*If* it indeed actually went to infrastructure and that term meant long-lasting and useful capital projects.

kyle8 November 1, 2011 at 11:17 pm

As Darren says, IF. If also, the projects are actually necessary or useful and not a bridge or road to nowhere, or a colossal rip off like Massachusetts’ Big Dig.

Xmas November 2, 2011 at 4:59 am

I wouldn’t call The Big Dig a rip-off. The costs of the project reflect the current costs of a modern day, large infrastructure project under current Federal and State law. Sure, there was a bit of lackadaisical oversight when it came to costs…project scope…construction materials…and so on, but that probably didn’t do more than double the overall costs of the project.

The end results are much nicer though, and up to modern highway specifications. The old “I-93″ was a pre-Interstate High System design, and was built without any Federal Highway funds. Have you ever actually driven through the Callahan Tunnel to get to Logan Airport? It was a journey through hell.

Really, what The Big Dig shows, is the long institutional memory of Congress. The project was a parting gift for Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill, Jr. He had been retired for 20 years (and dead for 10) and yet Congress kept approving the payouts.

(If it wasn’t obvious, my tongue was firmly in my cheek as I wrote this. Though, really, the new highway and Mass Pike extensions are a million times better than the old routes.)

Seth November 2, 2011 at 12:37 pm

‘Mostly it’s either insiders or people that really don’t understand what legitimately constitutes a “shortage”.’

“I don’t think that means putting money into infrastructure is wasted”

Is there a legitimate shortage of money being put into infrastructure?

Daniel Kuehn November 1, 2011 at 3:13 pm

By the way – my coauthor on the chapter has a slide he likes to show. The number you hear quoted a lot is that China is producing 600,000 engineers a year and the U.S. is producing roughly 70,000, and this is somehow “bad” (as you’ll notice – China beats us on per-capita versions of those figures too.. but the raw numbers are more dramatic).

So he likes to show this slide with a picture with China’s planned road and rail lines vs. the U.S.’s planned road and rail lines, as well as figures for various classes of infrastructure built in each country last year. I forget the numbers exactly, but of course China’s numbers are many, many orders of magnitude larger than the U.S.’s. It’s not like we’re building a new interstate system – China is. When you see that, the whole 600,000 engineers vs. 70,000 engineers gets put into perspective (nevermind the fact that our engineering education is of considerably higher quality).

Russ Roberts November 1, 2011 at 3:43 pm

And what they call an engineer is not what we call an engineer. Different training. At least that’s my understanding.

argosyjones November 1, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Barefoot engineers, so to speak. Perhaps so. Its very hard to judge what is happening in a country so different (do they even require the same kind of training?) I read frequently of empty cities built from scratch and not yet occupied. At first glance this appears like madness, but it may be that internal migrations will fill them up in short order given the rapid pace of change.

House of Cards & Economic Freedom November 1, 2011 at 6:23 pm

If I remember correctly, that was also true of the former Soviet Union. Everyone was an “engineer”, but I could never undersand (i) what sort of engineer, and (ii) why they needed so many.

Doc Merlin November 2, 2011 at 3:59 am

Yes, in china what we call a mechanic is called an engineer.

Krishnan November 1, 2011 at 9:03 pm

The engineering societies have figured out how to lobby for their own (no surprise there) – there is incessant calls for increased funding for science techology engineering mathematics – but hard to figure out if any of that funding is actually making a difference (in education I mean) – Worse, there are the beginnings of a “race to the bottom” – states are looking at how they can reduce the number of credit hours needed to graduate engineers (so they can graduate more engineers) – I imagine the tuition rates per credit hour would rise to match the lowered credit hours … there are also ideas to create “2 year” engineering programs … ways to generate more revenue so colleges and universities can build more buildings and football stadiums and fancy places for students to hang out and have fun …

Daniel Kuehn November 1, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Do you have a link for the credit hours point? I would be very interested in learning more about that development.

Krishnan November 1, 2011 at 9:16 pm

About reducing credit hours so they can graduate earlier? No, but will try and locate them – there is talk about “making it easier” – and so schools are concerned about “competition” for tuition dollars

Krishnan November 1, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Univ of Central Florida (there may be many others) offers an “accelerated” program – Mechanical Engg in 120 credit hours – most universities need 128 or 132 (used to be 136) (there is a steady downward trend) – there is just too much pressure to keep the credit hours as they used to be – somehow, people think that by going to 120 (or who knows what) they will graduate more engineers in less time than it used to take -

Daniel Kuehn November 1, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Thanks. One of the things we’re looking at is the institutional response, so this is good.

Doc Merlin November 2, 2011 at 4:00 am

Fewer history and social studies class requirements? That would be awesome! If you eliminated the baloney requirements and had calculus 1 and 2 in high-school, you could finish an engineering degree in 3 years.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 2, 2011 at 8:40 am

(formerly Anotherphil)

My suspicion is that the core competencies of a Mechanical Engineer includes needs for Calculus, Physics, some chemistry, a drafting course, statics, dynamics and a couple other things that probable create a credit load of 60-80 credits. They should also be able to write a coherent sentence, and if I had my way, microeconomics would be a requirement.

If the reduction in credits comes from drivel routinely “taught” such things as ethic or gender “studies”, or a myriad of other made up courses with political indoctrination masquerading as academic instruction, the prospective engineer probably is not only not hurt, but is benefitted by concentrating on something that actually is useful and not just merely a requirement to separate them from their money and logic.

Daniel Kuehn November 1, 2011 at 9:11 pm

To be honest the two year program doesn’t sound so bad. One of the problems with the American education system is that it’s so damn bifurcated. We have lots of people that don’t go past high school and lots of people with a four year degree that they don’t need. There are less intermediate accreditation than in other countries, although that is changing (response to market forces, of course – but that institutional response is inevitably going to be slower).

Krishnan November 1, 2011 at 9:18 pm

There are very good 2 year programs – but to try and equate that to a 4 year degree program in engineering – OR – create an ‘engineering’ degree awarded in 2 years after High School is NOT a good idea – even after 4 (most take 5 or 6) years, there are many not quite ready to become that independent employee – that is, a 4 year degree in engineering used to be (and is in a lot of cases) a “terminal” degree – but that is slipping, slowly but surely – there are programs to “double count” courses towards Masters and so on …

Daniel Kuehn November 1, 2011 at 11:57 pm

No – you certainly shouldn’t equate it with a higher level of human capital. But the point is there aren’t the same intermediate options here for any field – not just engineering – that there are in say Switzerland or Germany. But it is changing.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 5:50 am

I have never meet a person who didn’t need a four year degree.

If you have, would you tell us who that person is.

Our problems are not that people know to much; our problems arise because people know too little. Everyone, including you, would benefit greatly from a full year course in reading and studying Shakespeare.

If you think not, have you ever read the textbooks used at Va. Tech (and elsewhere) that put together Art and Engineering Management?

Daniel Kuehn November 2, 2011 at 7:29 am

Depends on what you mean by “need” I guess. I’ve never met a person who I wouldn’t want to have a four year degree, but I’ve met people who are not interested in it, would struggle with it, and of course there are lots of good jobs out there for which four year degrees are more than is required or don’t even provide the skills required for the job.

I’ve certainly met a lot of people who feel quite fulfilled with a two year degree or an apprenticeship. I’m not saying less people should go to get a four year degree – I’m saying that more people who don’t go past high school should be getting something in between high school and a four year degree. If they go even farther, that’s fantastic.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 2, 2011 at 8:43 am

(formerly Anotherphil)

Been there done that. HIGH SCHOOL.

Fred November 2, 2011 at 8:58 am

Gee Dan.
I’m so glad you know what’s best for people.
You are more keenly aware of everyone’s individual circumstances than they are themselves.
Even people you have never met!
That is absolutely amazing!
You should be king!
Or better yet, I nominate you for God!

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 10:14 am

Daniel Kuehn asserts, “We have lots of people that don’t go past high school and lots of people with a four year degree that they don’t need.”

This is an absurd statement. Given the length and challenges of life, no one can have too much education. Your comment on education shows that you, likely, have a poor education. Just a few simple examples.

History. You probably study Gettysburg because you think it important as to who won the battle. That is true, but iit is also the best study of management and insubordination that one can find. Lee badly mismanaged, Longstreet was insubordinate, and Mead showed genius. You know that Alexander the Great studied under Aristotle but you likely have no idea what sort of a mind Aristotle crafted.

Someplace you may have heard of Beowulf but the teacher likely couldn’t explain that you read the book so that you begin to look at the character of people because you are going to have to work with people (and sell to them).

Then, as mentioned elsewhere, there is Shakespeare. You live in a world he made, but do not understand why or how.

Last, and I really like this one, you probably think the Sopranos is a story about gangsters and that Tony is a gang boss. It is not. It is a metaphor about American business and businessmen written and produced with skill not seen since Shakespeare,

When you begin to understand people, through Art and Literature, then you start having a mind of some use, to yourself and others.

Thus, it is very easy for me to see right through Hayek (and his followers). The KOCH story was no surprise to me. Even before the election, as things got worse, the more I feared that Obama would let that evil thug Larry Summers in under the tent. He did and as Suskind explains the result was horrible.

People would see that Obama was inexperienced but, due to a lack of education, they could not project that question into action. They could not see that Obama would struggle, as did Lincoln, when confronted with subordination and palace games.

But don’t take my word. Read Ben Franklin and what he says about his Fiday night library clubs where everyone from every walk of life came to further their education

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 2, 2011 at 11:59 am

(formerly Anotherphil)

“This is an absurd statement. Given the length and challenges of life, no one can have too much education.”

And college is the only source of learning? Don’t know the difference between “techne” and “episteme”, huh?

My grandmother is 99, only finished the ninth grade, but never stopped learning, until a couple years ago when a failing memory, hearing and eyesight conspired against her in this regard. She raised two kids on a very uncertain railroad paycheck (thanks to the ICC and operating unions) with her vast knowledge of domestic industrial processes and has always been more idependent, self-reliant, capable, pleasant and open-minded than any perpetually indignant and dogmatic leftwing college graduate.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Called it! I called the Koch thing 2 posts ago!

Ken November 2, 2011 at 12:27 pm


Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 11:23 pm

here is a link to an extraordinary text book, combining Art, Engineering, and Management

Just from the book, itself, you can tell how wrong you are about education

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 1, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Do you realize that China is still catching up? Until the 1990′s their rail lines were STEAM powered with models based upon a Soviet design based upon a 1920ish (not state of the art 1940′s) U.S. design?

Henry Posner of the Iowa Interstate and R.J. Corman both run examples of these locomotives that Posner imported, brought up to U.S. safety specs about 5 years ago.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 5:43 am

Suskind’s Confidence Men has a very interesting discussion about the state of civil engineering in the United States, noting that Yale, for example, no longer teaches civil engineering. The argument is made that our civil engineers are not as skilled as those in Europe

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 2, 2011 at 8:45 am

(formerly anotherphil)

But Yale sure pumps out an awful lot of left wing radical lawyers.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 9:51 am

clarence thomas is the worst judge of all time and is from yale

yale has a tradition of producing horrible people, all the way back to calhoun

Dan H November 2, 2011 at 10:06 am

Like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry?

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 2, 2011 at 10:14 am

clarence thomas is the worst judge of all time and is from yale

Even if he was a pedestrian judge, he’d be laudable for having resisted the radical inculcation.

yale has a tradition of producing horrible people, all the way back to calhoun

Best examples: Will & Hill.

Scott Murphy November 2, 2011 at 9:26 am

I worry way more about the severe lack of quality of non-STEM degrees.
Maybe if the courses required more rigor, the degree would have more value. It is always curious to me when my fellow engineers make fun of humanities. This comes from how easy the courses were. But they didn’t have to be that way and I don’t really understand why they are.

There is so much wisdom in things like Smith’s wealth of nations and An hume’s Human Understanding. It would have been nice to learn about in my humanities classes instead of having to piece things together in my spare time.

I meet too many english majors who hate reading. I wish instead of business/engr programs, there were more business/philosophy programs.

Krishnan November 2, 2011 at 9:51 am

Me too … it is indeed about rigor – and what is alarming is the trend to make engineering itself less rigorous -by paring down many basic science requirements and providing easy paths through mathematics requirements – and lessening the time required in the majors itself – the competition for students and “retention” and “graduation” rates are driving much of the “race to the bottom” -

Scott Murphy November 2, 2011 at 10:19 am

On the other side, so much of what is being learned in the major is pointless. Perhaps just getting through is for the best.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 11:25 pm
txslr November 1, 2011 at 3:18 pm

The government spends more money than it ever has and our infrastructure is supposed to be in a state of advanced decay, which means…the government should spend more money! Yay!

I live in Houston (inner looper, for you Houstonians) and the roads here are indeed poor. The highways and tollways are much better, but the surface streets are not good. On the other hand, we have a fantastic baseball stadium, a world-class football stadium, and new basketball arena, and we’re building a new soccer stadium. Houston presented a bid a few years back for the Olympics, and one of the prime selling points was that we could hold all of the events and we’d only have to build one venue- a diving facility, as I recall. We also have a fabulous new lightrail (which no one rides, but think of the jobs!).

I wonder why our surface roads are so bad? Must be the local government is too cheap!

khodge November 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm

An element that always seems to get ignored…why should the federal government step in to do what (certain) states choose as a lesser priority?

txslr November 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm

Interestingly, I recall that Gov. Perry suggested privatizing highways, which strikes me as an excellent idea. However, there was an uproar from people who insisted that they had already paid for those highways, so it would be wrong to be charged a fee to drive on them.

Muddled thinking on so many levels.

JWH November 1, 2011 at 11:20 pm

To support your point for more privatized highways, there was a line in the piece that pointed out that US railway freight infrastructure was good but passenger was not. All very true. Freight infrastructure is privately owned, passenger is not. Freight railroads must justify expenditures based on return on investment or go broke, and if they don’t spend enough they go broke. How much they spend is an agonizing daily decision they need to make to stay competitive. Not so in public highway construction or maintenance, often done to satisfy political, not economic ends.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 11:33 am

I have just one fear about privatizing highways:

A little known fact is that our Interstate System was designed for 2 reasons: facilitate the transportation of goods and services, people, troops, etc around the nation. The other is to serve as air-strips for our jets in the event of an invasion. Privatization could prevent the second function from taking place.

That being said, privatization would help reduce auto emissions: it becomes more expensive to drive due to tolls, people drive less, less emissions in the air, better for the environment.

Methinks1776 November 2, 2011 at 11:38 am

I did not know the interstates were meant as a landing strip as well. How often does that happen? Also, I presume that you’d only land an airplane on a highway as a last resort. Why wouldn’t a private operator allow an airplane in trouble to land on its highway?

Fred November 2, 2011 at 11:39 am

If the taxes that currently fund highways were repealed as part of privatization, I would think it would become cheaper to drive.

Methinks1776 November 2, 2011 at 11:43 am

Sorry, you said invasion. But still, wouldn’t a private operator comply with the military in case Canada invades? :)

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 11:47 am

Methinks, to your first point:

Landing on highways is more common than you’d think. It is a last ditch answer and you’re more likely to see a small private plane do a landing than a jumbo jet.

Also, in the event of a national emergency (such as those Canadians oozing over our boarder like maple syrup :-P ), I’d imagine the government could commandeer highways.

Dan H November 2, 2011 at 11:51 am

“Also, in the event of a national emergency ”

Like a “Red Dawn” scenario? WOLVERINES!!!!

Methinks1776 November 2, 2011 at 11:51 am

Yeah….you really have to keep your eye on those shifty Canadians!

That makes sense that small aircraft land on highways. But, I still don’t see why they would be prevented on privately owned roads. The operator could just charge a fee.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 11:59 am

Dan H, God I love that movie.

Methinks, that’s true that they could charge a fee, but maybe that would discourage fliers in distress to land on the highway and maybe land in the grassy field? I’m just playing hypothetical with you; I’d like at least partial privatization of roadways.

Dan H November 2, 2011 at 11:59 am

Methinks is right, once again.

No doubt private operators of roads would allow for this in the case of an emergency for a nominal fee. The fee would no doubt be covered by the insurance company who would rather pay $100,000+ to allow for a plane to land on a private road than pay millions to replace the plane and compensate dead victims’ families.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 12:06 pm

True. I forgot about insurance. I always forget about them.

Methinks1776 November 2, 2011 at 12:08 pm


I could be wrong about this, but I believe there are fewer airplane crashes than car accidents, but they are far more likely to be deadly,

So, if you’re a pilot and your own life, along with life of everyone on the plane with you is hanging in the balance, are you seriously going to value the money you are unlikely to live to enjoy above life itself? Really?

I happen to have been on a small private jet that almost didn’t make it. My friend, you could have gotten me to write you a check in any amount you wanted in exchange for a landing strip.

txslr November 2, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Maybe we should just invade Canada! We can call it Stimulus III.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 12:11 pm

True, Methinks.

And Txslr, that’s actually the plot of a movie: Canadian Bacon. Great flick. John Candy’s in it

Methinks1776 November 2, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Oh, you have to think bigger, txslr! also Germany. Come on, you know the Greeks and Italians want to and killing a bunch of people in their prime is a great way to soak up unemployment. Just think of the boost to GDP we’d get from producing tanks and m-16′s (do they still use those?). We’d be soooo rich!

Dan H November 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

@Jon Murphy

My fiance and I attended a Halloween Party last weekend where the theme was 80s/90s culture. We went as characters from Red Dawn. Her being Russian, she dressed as a Soviet soldier and I dressed as one of the WOLVERINES!

cmprostreet November 2, 2011 at 1:02 pm

“m-16′s (do they still use those?)”

Yes, at least I know the Marines do.

I’m pretty sure the last platoon to go through boot camp using iron sights just graduated from Parris Island a few weeks ago.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 1:45 pm

@Dan H

That’s great! I love that movie. I used to piss off my college roommate by watching it. He hated how sickeningly jingoistic the movie is.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 2, 2011 at 9:44 pm

The other is to serve as air-strips for our jets in the event of an invasion.

If your planes can land, so can theirs.

vikingvista November 3, 2011 at 12:42 am

“The other is to serve as air-strips for our jets in the event of an invasion.”

Sounds like a wording thrown into the original highway bill by one of its sponsors to make it sound more valuable. I wonder if anyone at the time bothered to ask, “Why not save money on those specs and use it to build more airports, if they are needed?”

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 11:26 pm

what cronies of Perry were going to buy the Highways?

Darren November 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm

…why should the federal government step in to do what (certain) states choose as a lesser priority?

It hasn’t stopped them before.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 5:51 am

because most of us drive from state to state, whereas you only walk from your trailer to your outhouse

McBrideR November 2, 2011 at 11:22 am

“you only walk from your trailer to your outhouse” Really? Are you so bitter that this kind of statement makes you feel better?

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 5:29 pm

it was the nicest thing that came to my mind

if he wants to walk from his trailer to his outhouse on a muddy path, so be it, but is I need to drive near by on my way to doing something productive, then I have every right to have my Congressman and Senator tax his lazy ass to pay for a good safe road

khodge November 2, 2011 at 11:39 am

The trolls seem to be having a particularly difficult time stringing together coherent thoughts with all of the engineers commenting on this post.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm

TROLL = truth rolls over lazyminded libertarian

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 1, 2011 at 4:51 pm

(formerly Anotherphil)

I wonder why our surface roads are so bad? Must be the local government is too cheap!

OR it could be that the federal government has effectively removed major decisions from the states & localities by usurping their authority with federal highway money, which allows them to coerce states into doing a lot of things (such as defining DUI as .08 BAC and requiring an age 21 legal drinking age).

In my personal opinion, ANY transfer of funds from the feds to the states is designed to do one thing-force the states to enact whatever policy is being pursued without legally violating the 10th amendment.

In the case of the .08 BAC, the states fell like dominoes once the receipt of highway funds were condition upon tthe passage of that particular state’s vehicle code containing a .08 BAC DUI limit.

Insurance companies were looking to reduce their exposure to loss and municipalities and bar associations saw $$$.

Now that states have become dependent on the feds for some programs, they won’t spend money on them without first getting a hit off the federal fiscal crackpipe, commonly referred to as “FFP” or federal financial participation.

kyle8 November 1, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Fellow Houstonian here. The Light Rail of Death ought to be a standard subject in textbooks about a unneeded boondoggle project.

And yes, we have stadiums but our roads suck, but hey! You got to have your priorities straight.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 2, 2011 at 8:47 am

(formerly Anotherphil)

And Juvenal’s quip about “panem et cirque” (bread and circuses) still applies, despite our belief we have advanced.

Darren November 2, 2011 at 11:56 am

Still. It would be nice to have a good way to get to those wonderful stadiums. Kind of defeats the purpose.

txslr November 2, 2011 at 2:05 pm

And of course I forgot to mention that they built a luxury hotel downtown (Hilton Americas) and a new park to try to generate business for the convention center that they had previously built, but which wasn’t proving very popular.

And I’ll wager that Houston government works better than average.

Doc Merlin November 2, 2011 at 4:02 am


Mark November 1, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Infrastructure spending by the central planners is just another Ponzi Scheme.

They’ll just build more roads today that shouldn’t be built and skim all of gas taxes and toll fees. At some future date Krugman and Barnyard Frank will fall into a pot hole and claim it needs to be fixed.

Darren November 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Actually, that’s a good point. If a road is built that is not really needed and has little (if any) traffic, it will suck up resources that could be used to maintain roads with much more traffic.

Darren November 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm

And that suggests one problem. Many act as though resources are unlimited.

House of Cards & Economic Freedom November 1, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Many act as though resources are unlimited.

Luzhin seems to think so. He recently wrote:

“We no longer have an economy based on scarcity. We now have unlimited goods and services; what is lacking is income.”

Greg Webb November 1, 2011 at 11:10 pm

That’s because Nikki does not live in the real world where scarcity will always exist.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 6:01 am

House of Cards

you are a dull knife.

even 110 years ago, most things could not be bought at any price, for the industrial revolution was still growing rapidly and transportation systems were still that unreliable.

these problems have been largely solved by technology, such that our economy, today, presents a completely different set of challenges—how to produce income to pay for all that one can now buy

This means we have entirely different challenges than those faced in 1900

Greg Webb November 2, 2011 at 9:23 am

Nikki, no, you’re wrong. Scarcity still exists. We do not have unlimited goods and services. Income is limited because of the choice of individual income earner and the constraints that government places on them. What we have is a government problem where the political elite steal from the productive and limit competition in order to reward cronies.

khodge November 1, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Does it still crumble if it is a bridge to nowhere?

Chris Bowyer November 1, 2011 at 6:26 pm

A better question is: is it crumbling if there’s no one there to use it as a justification for stimulus?

vikingvista November 3, 2011 at 12:53 am

And where do you go if you should cross that bridge? OooooWEEEEEEEoooooo…

USCivil November 1, 2011 at 3:21 pm

As a civil engineer specializing in surface transport policy and investment, I work in many countries around the world. My personal view is that US infrastructure is remarkably good, too expensive, but really better than most places. Of course one can find a great piece of engineering in other places but overall, US infrastructure across the country is really great. Beijing’s new airport is remarkable, huge, and vastly more expensive than needed – maybe in 10 years. Some German highways, designed for high-speeds, are really wonderful. But, over all, considering core and feeder networks, it is my experience that US infrastructure is in good condition. US freight rail network is superior to any rail freight network in the world.

Regulation, litigation, high-labor costs for Federal contracts, and the cost of building in cities makes new infrastructure unnecessarily expensive in the US. As will all long-lived infrastructure, some of it needs replacing all the time and there has been continuous investment in US infrastructure. I think the ASCE are nuts. They should get out more. And look at more than the show pieces when they do.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 1, 2011 at 3:54 pm

My personal view is that US infrastructure is remarkably good, too expensive.

Wonder how much of this is due to Davis Bacon and other “prevailing wage” laws designed to limit competition for unions?

USCivil November 2, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Yes. Building public infrastructure in the US these days is very expensive due to Davis Bacon, but also to many regulations requiring contractors to attest that they meet hundreds of certification requirements for employees, materials sources, contractors, contractor employees. And, since we are so litigious, design and construction companies must cover many liabilities. It takes longer to sign contracts for some projects than the projects take to build.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 2, 2011 at 1:37 pm

(Formerly Anotherphil)

The bar association always gets theirs.

John Dewey November 1, 2011 at 5:31 pm


Thanks for that insight. It is remarkable that U.S. roads are in better shape, considering how much they are used. The latest data I’ve seen showed that U.S. vehicle miles per capita now exceed 10,000 per year. That’s more than double the usage per capita of 40 years ago.

The U.S. leads the worl in vehicle miles driven by a large margin. I don’t have recent data, but vehicle miles per capita in the U.S. was about 50% higher than that for the most developed European nations.

I suspect that U.S. heavy truck miles per capita – given the huge geographic areas traversed – are also much higher than in Europe.

Doc Merlin November 2, 2011 at 4:04 am

“US freight rail network is superior to any rail freight network in the world.”

Its rather remarkably good. Its also one of the only freight networks in the world that has been able to avoid government ownership. And unlike most freight rail networks its not clogged with lots and lots of passengers traveling at very different speeds to the freight trains.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 2, 2011 at 2:50 pm

(formerly Anotherphil)

Doc M:

“Its also one of the only freight networks in the world that has been able to avoid government ownership.”

Minor disagreement: your statement needs to be modified with the word AGAIN.

During WWI, the feds nationalized the U.S. railroad industry, to eliminate “destructive competition”.

However, the real problem with the railroads in World War I was actually destructive regulation. From the time that the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was created in 1887 (arguably America’s first bureaucracy) it began seeking greater regulatory powers and had plenty of willing accomplices in the form of agricultural state politicians who had grainge interests with the same type of disordered complaints as the “occupy” crowd.

There was a series of laws enacted that gradually gave the ICC greater and greater power, and when Teddy Roosevelt was elected in 1904, he saw great political advantage to making “Big Rail” his whipping boy. He sought and received even more restrictions on the railroads and received them in the form of the Hepburn Act of 1906.

By the time World War I started, the railroads were already suffering the effect of the ICC’s intrusion into and control of shipping rates and showing signs of deferred maintenance.

Of course, nationalization presents a great counterexample into twin fallacies of centralization and rule by “experts”. The organization created to run the railroads looked at the diversity of design of American locomotives, then designed in small batches to the specification of individual railroad mechanics and concluded the practice was an inefficient exercise in vanity. The USRA then began to create standardized designs. However, while the new designs worked in some circumstances, steam locomotives horsepower curves make them very much special purpose machines. Once nationalization was ended, the railroads began to purchase new locomotives according to the old practice of small batch custom order, because it wasn’t vanity, but familiarity with the lines and grades, operating practices and other conventions of individual railroads that dictated this specialization and any overarching design was inevitably a compromise that was right like a stopped clock.

Mises or Hayek easily could have used this as an example of why government control of industry is foolish, counterproductive and destructive. Of course left-leaning textbooks never look at it this way, simply parroting the “necessity” of government control to force interline coordination.

Of course, we didn’t rid ourselves of the ICC until 1995 after the federal government got a taste of it own medicine when it formed and ran “Conrail” after the ICC ran seven Northeast railroads into the ground. That relief came at the cost of replacing it with two different new regulators, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Surface Transportation Board (STB). Both are populated with lawyers, not railroaders and their rulemaking is often marked with inanity, verbosity and reactivity.

TheMaineOpinion November 1, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Why do we have so much crumbling infastructure when we are $15 trillion in debt (just at the federal level)? Of course that is on top of all the money that we actually raised in taxes and didn’t have to borrow. If we haven’t been able to build good infastructure with trillions of dollars, what makes them think spending billions more will make a difference?

SmoledMan November 1, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Because the vast % of that $15 trillion went to Johnson’s “Great Society” welfare programs that produce nothing.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 1, 2011 at 3:57 pm

(Formerly Anotherphil)

Because the vast % of that $15 trillion went to Johnson’s “Great Society” welfare programs that produce nothing.

Oh, give credit where its due. We have all kinds of instutionalized dependency and social pathologies created due to the “war on poverty” that provide a steady source of excuses for statist interventions and reliable voting blocks.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 6:06 am

instutionalized dependency and social pathologies

are you writing about banks that are too big to fail and the people who work there

Ken November 2, 2011 at 12:29 pm

And the OWS and their sympathizers, and the recipients of welfare, SS, Medicare, and Medicaid.


Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 6:04 am


The vast $$ have gone to defense and wars. We have never paid for either

Ken November 2, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Defense spending is still below 5% of GDP, where it’s been for two decades.


Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Ken you are a dull blade

add up and defense budgets and they exceed our national debt, going all the way back to WWII, so we haven’t paid for defense

remember, I am a Keynesian who believes that in good times you taxes should have been high enough to pay for the wars

Ken November 2, 2011 at 5:51 pm


add up and defense budget

What does this even mean? Is basic grammar really so difficult for you?

Do you mean do something like this:

Let d(k) be the defense budget for year k, then compute D = d(1941) + d(1942) + … + d(2010). Is your claim that since D is greater than the national debt, defense spending is responsible for the national debt? If so, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

Why focus on D? Why not focus on S = s(1941) + s(1942) + … + s(2010), where s(k) is the social security budget for year k? Care to add that one up? You’ll see that S is greater than the national debt. Why not say that social security is responsible for the national debt?

It’s easy enough, using the weak logic you bring forth, to say that the government has paid for defense, but has failed to pay for social security.


txslr November 1, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Speaking Houston, a number of years ago there was a major project underway to rebuild I59 North which dragged on, and on, and on. The Houston Chronicle, in a random act of journalism, discovered that the contract had been written in such a way that the contractor could claim payments well in advance of work being done. The penalty for late completion was the cost of a single city employee who would review the work and report on progress to the city.

The cost of this person’s salary was much less than the interest the contractor was earning on prepayments he had received, so he paid the penalty and stopped work.

Your government at work.

Jon November 1, 2011 at 3:44 pm

3 words: Boston Big Dig

Fred November 1, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Hey, man!
Don’t kill the job!

Jon November 1, 2011 at 3:30 pm

The last sentence of that article reminds me of a lyric from CCR:

“When we ask ‘how much should we give?’ the answer is always ‘more! more! more!’”

Pablo November 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report rankings are based upon subjective surveys of business executives. Debunking or at least pointing out the obvious absurdities in how the conclusions were reached is like whacking a pinata on the ground without a blindfold.

The author is strangely silent about the American Society of Civil Engineers conclusions. All this article does is take the author’s subjective experience (I don’t see crumbling infrastructure — besides it’s much better than every third world country I have been to) and combines it with the obvious absurdity that the rankings were created from surveys asking other peoples opinion. I really don’t see how this article really makes the point you want it to make.

Jon November 1, 2011 at 3:43 pm

The author is using the WEF’s report as that is the report that is cited when claiming America has 3rd world infrastructure. He is supplementing the report with personal experience.

What Russ’ point is, when you analyze the data more closely, the results aren’t as dire as some would have you think.

Additionally, the author does address something of the ASCE’s report: he says that he believes it is sincere, but it should be taken with a grain of salt as these are the people who would benefit directly from increased spending. It’s kind of like asking the police department if we need to increase spending on law enforcement.

PrometheeFeu November 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm

I asked my local police officer and he felt he deserved a salary increase and more paid vacation. You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.

Jon November 1, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Who doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Me? My point was if you ask people who will directly benefit from an action, they’re going to support that action as it is in their interest, just like your cop story.

Captain Profit November 2, 2011 at 9:26 am

Jon, I’m pretty sure that was PrometheeFeu’s sarcastically illustrated point as well.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 10:20 am

Oh ok…sarcasm is often lost in translation. Sorry about that, PrometheeFeu

Pablo November 1, 2011 at 5:48 pm

My point is that he doesn’t successfully debunk the position of “crumbling infrastructure.” He debunks the WEF report which is not that hard to do.

And I get it with the ASCE. He is trying to discredit or diminish the findings of the ASCE’s report by pointing out their vested interest in increased infrastructure. However, his article does not address the substantive issues of the ASCE’s report.

This post and the related article do a very poor job “debunking.” A more truthful statement might be: “While proponents of increased infrastructure spending likely overstate the severity, the US still has problems with its infrastructure that likely need to be addressed with increased spending.”

Jon Murphy November 1, 2011 at 5:55 pm

But do we need to increase the spending? Don and Russ have posted reports with this question as well. Spending on infrastructure is at record highs. It’s not the amount of spending; it’s where the spending goes.

muirgeo November 1, 2011 at 6:14 pm

It’s not really at an all time high… yu’ve just heard that said over and over without checking for yourself.

txslr November 1, 2011 at 6:36 pm


First, Jon didn’t say it was at an all-time high. He said it was at a record high, which isn’t quite the same thing. The record, for example, could be “the most spent since the completion of the Interstate Highway System.”

Second, the chart you link shows spending as a percent of GDP, not the amount spent. Since GDP has increased significantly since the highs as a percent of GDP, this may actually be an all time high in spending.

Jon Murphy November 1, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Right, Txslr. I am talking in nominal dollars, not as a percentage of GDP. Also, I am looking at Census construction data. Unfortunately, I do not have the data right in front of me, so I cannot tell you the time frame I am/was looking at. I’ll check tomorrow at work.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 8:45 am

Ok, I got some numbers for you guys:

For the 12 months ending in September:
Construction on highways and streets totaled $79.4 billion (4.1% below the record high set in February ’11 [$82.8B])

Construction on bridges totaled a record $25.5 billion

Construction on airports totaled $6.1 billion (11.1% below the record set in March 2010 [$6.8B)

Sewer and Water construction totaled $16.2B (less than a percent below the record set in Feb).

I used 12 month totals as it eliminates seasonality.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 8:46 am

All data from Census

txslr November 2, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Game, set, match.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 12:12 pm

By the way, anyone want to check me on this:

Randy November 1, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Infrastructure is crumbling. But that’s the thing about infrastucture – it is always crumbling. Complex systems require constant maintenance. And therein lies the real problem – that the political system that designs infrastructure either routinely underestimates the long term cost of said maintenance, or deliberately designs it in so as to be useful for patronage schemes.

P.S. Isn’t it interesting that the folks who are so concerned about environmental issues never met a paveover project that they didn’t like.

Mark November 2, 2011 at 9:27 am

This is my point in the post above. When you build something with no economic value you will have to continue to sink money into it because it will be in disrepair.

I suggest de-infrastructure. Where we tear down and clean up inner cities and turn them back into nature.

Fred November 2, 2011 at 10:12 am

I wouldn’t go that far, but I would support taking roads that are not heavily used and de-paving them.

Unpaved roads are less expensive to maintain.

SmoledMan November 1, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Imagine those trillions that went to the Middle East wars could have fixed our roads, bridges, cleaned lakes and rivers, wired the entire country to fiber optic. We’d be a truly advanced country right now if not for Bush.

Darren November 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm

We’d have flying cars by now and not even *need* any roads. It’s all Bush’ fault!

Greg Webb November 1, 2011 at 11:07 pm


tkwelge November 2, 2011 at 4:48 pm

. I’m not here to defend bush, but jesus christ, stop outright lying. The amount of money spent on middle east wars is a waste, but it really only represents about a 100 billion a year of extra spending. Yes, over a thirty year period, 3 trillion dollars of cost will be incurred, mostly from healthcare for veterans, but that is a far cry from the idea that we could have spent 3 trillion dollars last year if it weren’t for that war in the middle east.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 4:51 pm

He’s being sarcastic, man. SmoledMan is, generally speaking, sarcastic.

Sam Grove November 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm

The San Jose Mercury News reported today the the estimated cost for the high speed rail project has increased 3X to nearly 100 billion dollars.

I don’t get why this thing is so hard to kill.

txslr November 1, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Hey, the more expensive the more stimulative! If they built the a station on the moon we’d all be rich!

Dave November 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm

It would be nice to have objective measures of infrastructure. “Percentage of bridges with structural damage” for instance. “Highway potholes per mile.” Other measures that are normalized for the size (or population or miles traveled) of the country and infrastructure. Something other than a subjective survey would be more informative and make for easier comparisons.

Darren November 1, 2011 at 4:56 pm

You’d need to measure the utility of the specific infrastructure item. Who cares if another ‘bridge to nowhere’ is falling down? Whereas, some people might get upset if the Golden Gate collapsed.

brotio November 2, 2011 at 12:14 am

Whereas, some people might get upset if the Golden Gate collapsed.

But not our Dear Ducktor Yasafi. One of the earliest comments he ever made at the Cafe was bitching that roads are eeeevil because they allow people to drive to WalMart.

tkwelge November 2, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Well, why should we subsidize sloth or suburban living? If it weren’t for the network of government roads, people would definitely urbanize and use more local stores for their day to day needs.

Dave November 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Also, any good engineer can think of ways to improve infrastructure. The problem is that the engineer’s assessment of the condition of infrastructure does not address the question of how much the improvement would be worth. Otherwise, why not make all bridges and roads out of diamond? That would be sturdy…

Tuure Laurinolli November 1, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Any good engineer can also think of ways to make infrastructure cheaper. It’s his job to optimize for whatever goal the boss says to optimize for.

rbd November 1, 2011 at 4:56 pm

If our infrastructure were in fact crumbling, wouldn’t we see evidence of this by way of an increase in motor vehicle accidents, etc.?

SmoledMan November 1, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Not necessarily evidence by increased accidents, but bad roads cause more damage to vehicles which raise maintainence costs for consumers.

Bill November 1, 2011 at 4:57 pm

First lesson in economics: incentives matter. If politicians were honored with plaques on maintenance and repair projects, rather than just on new projects, there would be better maintained existing infrastructure and fewer roads and bridges to nowhere.

txslr November 1, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Great thought! I nominate the Sheila Jackson Lee Ex-Pothole.

brotio November 2, 2011 at 12:17 am

If every Democrats’ favorite racist, the late Robert (Sheets) Byrd, couldn’t figure out a way to hang his name on a government project – then there isn’t a way.

Methinks1776 November 2, 2011 at 6:44 am


If a Grand Kleagle can’t do it…

J. W. November 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Colonel Sanders did it, but it was a private project and the KFC logo was added in chalk:

Mark T November 1, 2011 at 6:12 pm

In the past four months the Northeast has had a magnitude 6 earthquake and a record setting hurricane / tropical storm. I would have thought if crumbling infrastructure were so pervasive, more infrastructure would have crumbled in the face of such a one two punch. I think there were two small bridges washed out that I recall, but the overall result suggests crumbling is a misstatement.

Jon Murphy November 1, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Well, in NH and Vermont, there was a lot of damage to roadways in the hurricane, but many of those were backroads and old bridges.

Greg Webb November 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Russ, thanks for posting this excellent article. The “crisis” in America’s infrastructure is just another made-up story by political cronies to reach into the pockets of US taxpayers.

rjs November 1, 2011 at 7:11 pm

how many of you have been to europe, korea, or china to see the difference?

Greg Webb November 1, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Yo! Count me in. I’ve been to England, Scotland, Wales, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Turkey in the last five years. Some of the infrastructure that I saw was good and some was not. But, such a biased sample focusing on the areas where infrastructure is likely to be best gives an incorrect view of the whole of European infrastructure.

txslr November 1, 2011 at 7:29 pm

I’ve been to Ireland and I found the roads inadeqate. Terrifying, actually.

Tuure Laurinolli November 2, 2011 at 6:12 am

Being “to Europe”, “to China” or “to USA” is rather vague. Downtown Manhattan is quite different from upstate New York, and very different from some remote locale in North Dakota. Europe and China have even wider internal differences.

khodge November 1, 2011 at 7:31 pm

If we weren’t building all these weapons to fight the alien invasion we’d have something to spend on infrastructure.

Jon November 1, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Being a libertarian civil engineer, and working in the ‘heavy infrastructure’ sector, it’s always challenging to know what to make of these reports by our lobby groups. One thing that’s clear to me if we want to stop building ‘roads to nowhere’ is that fees should be user based (tolls for example) and large public works projects should be Public Private Partnerships with the firms involved having an equity stake. According to one estimate by Deloitte, there’s over $150 billion dollars from pensions and other investment funds waiting to be spent on infrastructure, but most states don’t have the proper enabling legislation in place to allow the private sector to contribute.

John Dewey November 2, 2011 at 10:02 am

Jon: “that fees should be user based (tolls for example) and large public works projects should be Public Private Partnerships with the firms involved having an equity stake”

Agreed. I think the libertarians here would take the word “public” out of the term “Public Private Patnerships”. But I do not believe many highways could be built in the U.S. today without the power of eminent domain. I’m sure most libertarians would disagree with me. Of course, expanding highways on existing right-of-way wouldn’t require eminent domain. In those cases, I would favor selling or leasing the highways to private companies if those private companies agreed to maintain and expand them.

Jon November 2, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Agree 100%, but even allowing some degree of private investment is a huge step forward.

jorod November 1, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Somebody did a study that said 80% of infrastructure spending was determined by politics not need.

EG November 1, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Well I’m an engineer, and I’ve been saying here for a while that the ASCE claims are suspect.

g-dub November 1, 2011 at 10:05 pm

I too am an engineer, and I never said anything about crumbling.

axiomata November 1, 2011 at 10:08 pm

I’m a ASCE member. The “D” ranking is a joke (and has been every year since they started giving it out in 1998).

I paid (well my company paid) $135 to upgrade to a full membership this year from a student membership.

I fully intend to quit come renewal next year and cite ethical concerns that the society’s lobbying is a promotion of our (engineer’s) special interests at the expense of the society’s stated mission of serving the public good.

Jon Murphy November 1, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Is there any way you can give us some of the criteria used when determining the grade? Anywhere it’s published?

Against the grain November 1, 2011 at 11:48 pm

I am an ASCE member, and have seen from my fellow members some of the calculations. They are based as many factors such as “structurally deficient bridges”, “functionally obsolete bridges”, and “level of service” (traffic delay). Unfortunately, structurally deficient does not mean the bridge will fall down, but that the bridge requires substantial maintenance. Functionally obsolete may mean that the bridge has 8 foot shoulders, when the standards call for 10 foot shoulders. Improvements on may Level of service F roadways can eliminate 50% of the delay, but remain level of serve F conditions.

My sense is that the lack of pricing obstructs our focus. I thought Mr. Lane did an outstanding job laying out the problem. When willingness to pay starts shaping our investments and competition between alternate solutions arrives our infrastrure will improve.

On a positive note, currently we are in a safety revolution where fatalities per vehicle mile driven is falling about 10% per year for the past 4 years. Cheap cable guard rail, audible striping and improved vehicle automated driving systems have made the difference, not tons of cash.

EG November 2, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Yep. They define their factors and weighing in their reports. My concern is that a lot of these factors are not necessary related to making “infrastructure” more effective at meeting its requirements.

A 10 foot shoulder on a short bridge is not going to improve by any measurable degree the performance of that bridge to carry out its job…vs an 8 foot shoulder. Not if that bridge is in the middle of Indiana and sees low levels of traffic.

The marginal return from increased “improvements” in “infrastructure”, at this point, is probably close to 0.

EG November 1, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Well, you know what we say about civil engineers.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 1, 2011 at 9:58 pm

skeptical = biased, right?

Greg Webb November 1, 2011 at 10:33 pm

No. Skeptical is defined as having doubt.

kyle8 November 1, 2011 at 11:10 pm

If there truly is a problem with the USA infrastructure then that is a huge indictment against big government. Because our spending on infrastructure has been very high. It has risen, not fallen, nearly every year for the last thirty.

So something is wrong, and how much do you want to bet that throwing money at it is not going to help?

tkwelge November 2, 2011 at 2:09 am
Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 6:11 am

if I read the chart correctly, the slope is less than our annual increase in GDP which would be consistent with decreasing investment

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 7:27 am

That would be correct if GDP= G in transportation only. But GDP = C+I+G+NX. All your observation notices is that spending as a percentage of GDP is down, which is a fact we have established earlier.

John Dewey November 2, 2011 at 10:07 am

“which would be consistent with decreasing investment”

No. That’s the same argument that liberals made about tax revenues when tax rates were cut – that a decline in % of GDP indicates a decline. Of course tax revenues and infrastructure spending can increase at a lower rate than GDP increases. That’s what we should desire: that the growth of non-government goods and services exceeds the growth of government funded goods and services. That is, unless one is a socialist.

Darren November 2, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I suspect amost of the growth in GDP is due to the internet and increased technology rather than increased use of the physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, rail, etc.). So, it would not make sense that this spending must keep pace with the increase in GDP.

tkwelge November 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm

This could simply mean that real GDP is growing faster than the rate at which we subsidize infrastructure. There is no inherent reason why more infrastructure is necessary for an increasing GDP. In the netherlands, people ride bikes down narrow roads in huge numbers. Are you suggesting that they’d be economically better off if they all started driving cars on national highways? “Infrastructure” is not some homogenous blob of resources.

tkwelge November 2, 2011 at 4:45 pm

I mean, seriously? Not keeping up investment with the rate of GDP growth represents a REDUCTION in investment even if the actual real dollars invested quintuples? We spend many times more per person on infrastructure than we did during the so called golden age of infrastructure development, and that represents a reduction of investment? This could only possibly be true if you actually assumed that people wouldn’t ever find a way to use infrastructure more efficiently or that building more suburbs will mean that individual productivity will automatically increase. In most cases, infrastructure subsidizes waste, ie allowing people to use automobiles in huge numbers to commute way further than they have to back and forth to work and the mall.

muirgeo November 2, 2011 at 10:08 am

Once again when I see economist questioning scientist as they are prone to due from climate change to ozone depletion to air quality standards and now to our infrastructure needs I am indeed always reminded to be aware of who’s claims are being guided by what needs.

They warned us of the Minneapolis I35 bridge and we ignored it. We clearly need to invest in our 50 year old infrastructure and the position of denial is once again a mere position of convenience taken by those so readily willing to take for granted the world they were born into. One day you might find yourself on a bridge in a position like the women by the black SVU wondering if maybe they had a point. Or you might find yourself drowned as levies repairs were neglected or you might even find yourself blowed up as gas pipelines went a little too long between repairs as they did in San Bruno California.

Ultimately some people are rationalizing the need for a small group to hold incredible and ridiculous fortunes while the rest of the country decays and crumbles.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 10:25 am

We are not denying that infrastructure needs updating or repair. In fact, multiple of us have said multiple times that roadways require constant repair. What we are asking is do we need to spend more than we already are or should we better appropriate the money we have?

We are also questioning the term “crumbling.” There is no denying that some roads and bridges are in disrepair, but to spread that out over the entire system that is still one of the best in the world is just downright irresponsible.

It’s the classic Rob Reiner technique: use misleading or incorrect stats to advance your position, and truth be damned if it’ll serve your cause.

muirgeo November 2, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Fair enough Jon but here are several easy ways to be sure we are putting in a little too much rather then too little.

End the mortgage interest deduction for either ALL homes or at least for all second homes and any home value above say $2 million.

Bring down the military industrial complex and add an instant $100 billion to revenues.

Reform our finance system so it provides the utility we need without making it a casino shifting huge amounts of profits to income earners who add nothing to the economy. There is NO reason to allow federally insured commercial banks to gamble with our money. Let the Wall Street jack asses trade their toxic brews amongst themselves rather then taking money from pension funds, schools and home equity.

The idea that government can do nothing right is just wrong. It will always be wasteful just as private enterprise will be but when responsive to the majority of peoples needs instead of just the super wealthy it will be far more efficient.

There are very real and practical solutions to our problems. Our problems are self created by allowing massive accumulations of wealth and then allowing that wealth to auction our democracy.

The answer is NOT less government. Less governmentALWAYS leaves a power vacuum which will be filled by some one of even less well meaning. The answer is better government and that is an imperfect government of the people.

Craig S November 2, 2011 at 1:30 pm

“Our problems are self created by allowing massive accumulations of wealth and then allowing that wealth to auction our democracy. ”

Its amazing, everything in your post before this quote is lucid and makes sense. This however is just nonsense (and a good example of the confirmation bias Dr Roberts is often refering to.)

“The answer is NOT less government. Less governmentALWAYS leaves a power vacuum which will be filled by some one of even less well meaning”

Less gov’t does not mean no gov’t. North Korea has more gov’t control than S Korea, do you think its better off? Even the UK was clearly much better off today, that circa 1978.

I’m not an anarchist or anti-stater at all. I do think we need some level of govt, but its insane to suggest that less govt aka more freedom will lead to a power vacuum and tyranny. Its in fact the other way around.

“The answer is better government”

and what is better gov’t? Gov’t run by the “right people”? People that think like you perhaps? Democracy is great, until the voters choose the wrong people, then what? Powerful people will always seek more power over others. It is your ideology that enables the very evils you are against.

Methinks1776 November 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm

You found this:

Reform our finance system so it provides the utility we need without making it a casino shifting huge amounts of profits to income earners who add nothing to the economy. There is NO reason to allow federally insured commercial banks to gamble with our money. Let the Wall Street jack asses trade their toxic brews amongst themselves rather then taking money from pension funds, schools and home equity.

lucid? I think you may have lowered your standards for lucidity.

muirgeo November 2, 2011 at 2:08 pm

It’s totally lucid to some one not one of the rent seeking jack ass rip off artist profiting form the system.
Give a valid short legitimate explanation as to why its not lucid to separate commercial and investment banking. You can not but you will be capable of an ad hom.
You can not win this debate. You claiming my position is not lucid makes you the irrational one. There are plenty of brilliant and respected economist and finance experts who have admitted financial derivatives are not needed.

Jon Murphy November 2, 2011 at 1:43 pm

I agree with points 1-3.

Point 4 I partially agree with. Government can do things right, but inherently it creates more waste than the private sector. Since the private sector is people dealing with their own money, they are more careful with how they spend it. Government, however, is not spending their own money and are less careful with it. In addition, certain political rules governing government spending (such as the Buy American Act, or various rules governing employment requirements) promise more money will be spent.

I have to say I disagree with your final paragraph. In the event of an anarchy situation, I would agree with your assessment. But as long as there is a functioning government does entertains it’s basic functions (those are: the general protection of the population, enforcement of contracts and enforcement of property rights), then organic solutions would prevent a dictatorial situation you suggest. New Hampshire, for example, has a lot less government than Massachusetts, but no one would describe a power vacuum in the state.

We do need better government and less corruption. The best way to do that is to sever the link between business and government; stop making government life profitable. If we increase the relationship between government and business (through regulations, watchdog agencies, and the like), we only strengthen the ties between the two and we allow corruption to spread.

Even with a benevolent dictator, we still have issues regarding the distribution of resources. No one person (or group of people) has that knowledge, regardless of their intentions or expertise. And that leads to waste. Conversely, the free market minimizes waste. Of course it occurs, but it is minimized because the process is decentralized.

I know it’s hard to believe, but we both want the same thing: a fair, honest government, good businesses, a fair shake for every man, and a better world. Where we disagree is how to achieve that.

Darren November 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Local control will generally address infrastructure needs more efficiently than more central control. Say you need your driveway repaired. It’s really a part of the overall infrastructure, even if you are the only one who uses it. Who is in a better position to allocation resources to fix it, you are the federal government?

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 2, 2011 at 8:30 pm


Look what “local control” did to the attempts to build new bridges, etc. into New York from New Jersey

SteveD November 2, 2011 at 10:45 am

As a structural engineer, I both understand the costs of constructing, maintaining and upgrading our infrastructure.
Three facts:
1) Engineers are conservative by nature. A piece of infrastructure considered deficient may not be in immediate danger of falling down, but it is less safe than society has deemed appropriate. Since engineers are liable for the work they do both professionally and personally, they of course error on the conservative side.
2) The general public has very little understanding of how much it costs to have high quality, First World, infrastructure. It is my opinion that the general public would not be willing to pay for what they now expect if the actual costs were paid by the end users of infrastructure in the form of tolls, fees, etc. We need to educate people about the costs, end subsidies, pass costs down to the end users and have a dialog about safety/reliability versus cost.
3) A huge amount of money is spent each year on permitting and environmental mitigation. Should widening an existing highway require tens of millions of dollars in studies to determine if an already impacted area will be significantly more impacted? Does the manmade strip of vegetation between lanes of highway really count as pristine wetlands and need to be mitigated? This money could be spent to improve our infrastructure.

John Dewey November 2, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Steve D: ” It is my opinion that the general public would not be willing to pay for what they now expect if the actual costs were paid by the end users of infrastructure in the form of tolls, fees, etc.”

Toll roads which have been sold from the beginning as toll roads seem to be accepted by the public where I live. Is that not true where you live?

vikingvista November 3, 2011 at 12:58 am

Toll roads, at least the boothless kind that we have here in TX, are my favorite roads. I see that new plans are to post dynamic toll rates that increase with the amount of traffic, as a way to regulate traffic. Brilliant. I’ve been in traffic jams where I’d gladly drop a $20 to get out of them, and I’m stuck there wondering why everyone parked on the tollway is only paying 25 cents.

JWH November 2, 2011 at 10:49 am

A link to the NTSB report on the I 35 bridge. The executive summary is not technical and is short.

The bridge failed because of a design problem, poor QC by highway officials and the deisgn firm. The heavy loads imposed by construction equipment was a catalyst for the failure. I would argue the amount of infrastructure spending was not the problem. Human failabilty and poor systems were the culprits.

I find it troubling that some use human caused accidents as a justification for a political point of view. Throwing money at a problem is often not the solution and sometimes makes it worse. If we want to improve safety, we need to systematically look at the causes of accidents and put the resources where they do the most good. Spending tax payer dollars to increase employment does not necessarily improve safety. Yet we have politicians and others who try to equate the 2 in their discussions.

Jim November 2, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I appreciated the author’s ability to expose the subjectivity of the report, as well as the common but silly practice of comparing USA to countries the size of Guatemala.

But the issue with American infrastructure is the same as in so many other industries (like health care); it is a curious mash-up of market and monopolistic themes that give us the worst of both worlds:
1. The state freeway going through my city in the Southeast (about 15 miles) has been under construction for 20 of 22 years. Enough said.
2. It took 5 years for the city to add a lane to 3 miles of road, including a major ‘do-over.’ The road suffers from winter wear (depressions and potholes) after its first season. In places the road does not drain because its slope does not send water to the drainage inlets.
3. My mother lives in a city in Ontario (where cold climates demand much stricter road planning and substrate provisions) about 1/3rd the size of my American home. It added 20 miles of freeway, including off-ramps, in about 6 months. Their local taxes are about the same as mine, and the road suffers no weather induced blemishes 10 years later. There state control of eminent domain is much higher, although the process is more transparent and bids for work are more competitively structured.

Crony capitalism. Graft. Captured monopolies. You name the issue. It is all the same to me. Practically speaking, the argument for 50 laboratory states is compelling, although the current system of federal collections disbursed to state coffers with provisions attached is also ruinous.

txslr November 2, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Houston had similar problems, but when they rebuilt the section of I45 through downtown (the Pierce Elevated in local parlance) they included significant penalties for being late AND rewards for getting done early. I swear that section of highway went up overnight! About what you would expect if the highways were privatized.

Darren November 2, 2011 at 12:24 pm

While not a perfect solution (nothing is), federalism (“50 laboratory states”) seems to me to the the most politically doable. I don’t want someone else try to impose their idea of a perfect society on me, so I won’t do the same. I think more people would be happier overall. The main issue is mobility. People who are dissatisfied with where they live should be as able as possible to move to another location. You’d have the 50 states competing against one another. Some would fail because they offered too much they could not afford. Some would fail because they were corrupt. Those that succeeded would accrue more population, more revenue from that population, more political influence in Congress, etc.

Jim November 2, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Yes. It is not like we are going to dismantle the federal government and re-write laws to conform to free market principles, even in the next 30 years. We will literally go bankrupt before we try that.

But returning power (along with current tax revenue streams) to the 50 states is a doable beginning.

Strategically, I believe limited government voter priority should be focused on repeal of the 17th Amendment. Voters can not limit federal power without state help.

The alternative is to disband the Senate altogether. It adds no value as constructed.

muirgeo November 2, 2011 at 1:24 pm

The Rachel Maddow commercial are great if for nothing else in how they frame the debate and the two positions generally taken on these issues.

“I feel like we have sort of an amazing inheritance in terms of what are grandparents and our great grandparents thought to leave us. When they were building the infrastructure that is the spine of this country they knew that the benefit of it would redound to us. They knew it. What are we doing?”


Fred November 2, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Is that the commercial filmed in front of a damn that, if it could get past the regulator hurdles and lawsuits, would take ten times longer to build at a hundred times the cost if attempted today?

Craig S November 2, 2011 at 1:42 pm

They knew it. What are we doing?”

Creating great inovations in many fields that will make life even better for future generations.

kyle8 November 2, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Maybe we would have money for a modern day Hoover Damn if we were not wasting our wealth on ever increasing entitlements, bailouts, corn subsidies, wars, the drug war, and rip offs like Solyndra.

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