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April 25th, 2011
Gridlock Sam: Too Big to Fall

Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E.

Every time I drive over the General Pulaski Highway in New Jersey I am reminded of the I-35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis.  Both bridges were designed as “fracture critical,” meaning that if just one beam fails, the bridge collapses – there is no redundancy.  If there were just two bridges designed that way it would be no problem to monitor them.  But, as pointed out in a new book, Too Big to Fall by Barry LePatner, there are tens of thousands of fracture critical bridges in the United States and nearly 8,000 are structurally deficient, which is a recipe for disaster.

Using the tragic collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis as a starting point, Barry LePatner lays out how our nation has neglected a majority of our 6,000 spans. LePatner presents a complete, well-researched story about the nation’s transportation infrastructure. This book is a must read for anyone in engineering, construction, architecture, and planning. Frankly, it is a must read for any American who is concerned about the continuing strength of our economy and our quality of life.

What’s particularly compelling is not just the history of our road and bridge building and maintenance, infrastructure funding, and local decision-making, it is also the story we have yet to write. LePatner presents a thoughtful review of elements, which can create a well functioning, financially (and structurally) solid, efficient national transportation system.

LePatner rightly raises the fire alarm for the nation’s spans with nearly a quarter of the nation’s 600,000 determined to be structurally deficient or “functionally obsolete.” Even scarier, as I pointed out in my opening, are the 7,980 “fracture critical” bridges that are structurally deficient.

Getting the money is the most pressing concern (although in the long term, if we spend wisely on capital reconstruction and properly maintain our bridges, total costs will go down). You’ve heard about the $2+ trillion price tag necessary to repair and maintain the nation’s infrastructure.

Freedom Fees, which I’ve written about in a previous No. 13 Line column, are one part of the mix. We need to dust off and polish up some familiar strategies for raising transportation funds. These include the gas tax, which should be raised and pegged to inflation, and tolls, which should be increased where necessary and expanded to cover more essential, yet underfunded roads, bridges, and tunnels.

Less familiar strategies include a charge for vehicle miles travelled, emissions charges, and congestion pricing, which are necessary to expand funding options and also reduce congestion.

Once we get the money, how do we get a bigger bang for our buck? Too Big to Fall delves deeper than Freedom Fees and tackles the problems in our process for distributing funds on a state and federal level, and our delivery method for implementing maintenance and repairs.

LePatner points out that we need more accountability on the part of our states to use federal transportation funds a) for transportation projects and b) in a manner that provides the most long-term benefits of our money.

In 2004, the Government Accountability Office found that the rate of increase in federal investment in highways was nearly twice the rate of increase in state and local investment in highways. That means that after the passage of ISTEA in 1991, states were moving their dollars for highways to fund other things and substituting federal dollars into their highway budgets.

After the passage of TEA-21 in 1998, the rate of state and local investment had actually decreased, indicating that even more local funds were being shifted out of highway budgets. That may look good on the books, but it doesn’t fix our bridges and fill our potholes.

Several strategies exist to increase accountability, which need to be given thoughtful consideration. A National Infrastructure Bank can provide investment opportunities to projects which fill the most pressing gaps in our transportation network and which give the best return on investments.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are another way help close transportation budgets and oftentimes obtain better efficiency and maintenance quality out of our roads and bridges. The Federal Highway Administration has reported that PPP’s can save anywhere from 6% to 40% of the cost of construction, and limit the potential for cost overruns.  And PPPs can keep maintenance costs in check as well, by incorporating life-cycle costs of projects.  A survey of PPP’s in the UK concluded that private partners build higher quality facilities in order to reduce the long-term costs of operating and maintaining those facilities.

As you can read in the book, I’ve had my own experiences with the hard choices that engineers must make in the face of inadequate funding for maintenance and repair. We need to stop digging this hole that we are in and free engineers and planners from having to consider the price and the politics in making crucial repairs and regular maintenance.

LePatner does a great job of describing the dysfunctional financing maze which engineers are confronted with, which lead to faster deterioration and higher life cycle costs of our roads and bridges. They stem from the lack of accountability of federal funding requirements, outdated bridge inspection and reporting, and the management structure of our cities and DOTs which continually discount the professional opinion of our road and bridge engineers.

Anyone who cares about the health or our cities, states, and country should become familiar with the situation we’ve put ourselves in. As LePatner points out, there is no silver bullet. But we can be smart about the choices we make.

Morgan Whitcomb contributed to this article.

Samuel I. Schwartz is a former New York City Traffic Commissioner who currently writes the Gridlock Sam column for the New York Daily News and is CEO of Sam Schwartz Engineering.

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