Jan

9

 A bridge collapses in Minnesota a couple of years ago and it becomes virtually unanimously agreed that our country's roads and bridges are seriously outdated and the main component of any "stimulus package" should be the rebuilding of our "infrastructure". (That the Minnesota collapse was due to a design flaw rather than age seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.)

Of course no one really knows how much infrastructure would be appropriate since there is no market in it and building new roads and bridges seems to get decided upon based on such factors as political influence and earmarks.

Let's guess there are a few hundred thousand bridges in the country (depending on exact definition of bridge). If most of them were seriously deteriorating, wouldn't more than one bridge fall down every couple of years? And doesn't the fact that bridges practically never fall mean that they are actually in pretty good shape? Maybe even in much better shape than the minimum needed?

I don't mean to make light of the personal tragedy of the three people who died when the Minnesota bridge fell. But what is going on here? Media crying wolf? Politicians drumming up public fear so they can justify their pork? Statistical and economic ignorance by the media and politicians? All of the above?

Thank goodness there was that bridge to nowhere or we'd have no check at all on infrastructure spending and the stimulus package would be two or three times as large.

Pitt T. Maner III comments:

With respect to infrastructure I wonder if the fiber optic business will at some point make a revival. Thesis being there is a need to maintain and upgrade the Information Highway /Internet. Companies like Corning were once selling at 10X from where they are today. Is there another technology that will replace those older fiber optic lines?

Stefan Jovanovich adds:

As the noted philosopher Homer Simpson once said, "Public transit is for losers." Roads offer individuals choice; "mass transit" is the planners dream. As James concedes, it is also a guaranteed money loser. Roads and bridges actually pay for themselves; the tolls here in the Bay Area have been subsidizing BART for more than 3 decades. The presumption that the dreaded foreigners in the auto and oil industry will benefit disproportionately from road construction is mercantilism at its finest. I thought we all shared the odd notion that the consumers should decide matters, not the producers. (Oh, wait, that would mean a "rescue plan" that focused on the depositors — my bad.)


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14 Comments so far

  1. Anonymous on January 7, 2009 4:22 pm

    I have been a bridge engineer for the past 15+ years. Let me just say that you have absolutely no clue or idea what you are talking about. The bulk of our bridge inventory dates back to the 1950s. We have also hundreds of bridges that date as far back as the early 1900s still in function. The reason that these bridges are still functioning are due to the numerous retrofits, thanks to the lack of funding to state DOTs to build new bridges. As a matter of fact, here in the US, we have developed a new "science" to retrofit bridges by means of fiber composites because DOTs do not have the necessary budget to build new infrastructure. The reason that you do not see more bridge collapses in this country is because we have been placing band-aids on bridges for the past three decades.I believe that the "statistical and economic" ignorance is on your part. Next time get the facts straight…

  2. Anonymous on January 7, 2009 7:23 pm

    Not to sound too simplistic, let's put some real facts on the table. Also let me emphasize that bridges classified as "structurally deficient" are for the most part operational. Most of them are simply retrofitted (band-aid type of work) or the operational loading of the structure is reduced (fewer lanes). In the US by the time a structure reaches "structurally deficient" status it is usually a sign that it has been in service much longer than its intended life-cycle.

  3. Gary Rogan on January 7, 2009 10:33 pm

    There are several angles to this situation:

    1. Is the Minnesota bridge collapse relevant to infrastructure spending plans other than as a rallying point? Is it important to debunk the connection between this collapse and other rationale for infrastructure projects?

    2. What's the appropriate way to measure the return on infrastructure investments considering the lack of market-based prices for most infrastructure improvements?

    3. What is that return on investment, using the method(s) arrived at above, in the scenarios currently being considered?

    4. What is the likely number of lives saved by avoiding infrastructure collapses in the future? What other non-economic benefits (such a quality of life) come from the projects being considered?

    5. What are the appropriate point of origination for infrastructure improvement projects (Federal, State, or Local), especially in situations when a sudden and substantial amount of Federal money suddenly materializes to fund them?

    6. What is the real record of infrastructure improvement spending, under the New Deal and otherwise, on job creation, which is currently one of the main stated goals of the proposed spending?

    7. Should "green" projects, such as wind, solar, ethanol, biodiesel, and possibly even basic R&D, including solar biomass, etc., as well as Internet delivery pipes (local, metro, and long haul) be all considered together with bridge and highway improvements as all being infrastructure related? How should the various components be prioritized with respect to each other given a certain amount allocated for all of them?

    There is a substantial amount of disagreement among economists on the effects of FDR's and post war infrastructure initiatives on various economic indicators. In fact there is a substantial amount of disagreement on Keynesian vs. non-Keynesian approaches. From motivation to results, spending hundreds of billions, as is likely, certainly deserves a careful analysis.

  4. Anonymous on January 8, 2009 10:12 am

    Mr. Rogan provides some valuable and challenging questions. Regarding question #1, please refer to the link provided in my previous comments. The rationale for better infrastructure in this country is there with stats on the table.

    As for the economic impact of infrastructure building, I would say that there are better and more current benchmarks than FDR's New Deal. I would suggest that interested readers should refer to the various reports provided by state DOTs (for free on the web) about studies regarding economic impact of infrastructure building on local and regional economies.

    For instance, this report provides an in-depth view of the economic impact of the "Big Dig" project in the Northeast corridor. Once again, stats on the table for everyone to see.

  5. Nemo on January 8, 2009 12:45 pm

    From a friend in the business:

    In order to assess the need to upgrade or replace portions of our transportation network, it's helpful to understand two terms: functional obsolesence and structural deficiency.

    Functional obsolesence occurs when roadways and bridges do not meet current design standards. Examples of this would be the inability to carry traffic volumes, reduced sightlines, poor roadway geometry, inadequate crash protection on a bridge (i.e. Jersey barriers or similar), etc. Many accidents and fatalities occur as a result of these deficiencies, which cost not only lost dollars, but lost lives as well. Further, there is a tangible monetary loss due to hours lost in traffic snarls due to loss of productivity, increased fuel consumption, etc.

    Structural deficiency occurs when a structure can no longer safely carry design loads. As engineers, when we design a structure, what the codes require us to do is to consider the effects of self weight, utility and other superimposed loads, and loads due to vehicular and pedestrian traffic — and all of these loadings are multiplied by a factor of say 1.5 to 2.0, which is our "factor of safety" against failure. What this means is that any safely designed structure is really designed to be able to carry somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0 times the largest realistic loading. This allows for unforeseen conditions like allowance for construction tolerances, infrequent overloads due to vehicles being in excess of statutory weights, some once-in-a-lifetime combination of critical loading that the codes do not allow for, and the like. It also prevents collapse of a structure at such time when the structure begins to deteriorate with age. Therefore, there are many structures that can only carry say 1.2 to 1.3 times the design loads — less than the required 1.5 to 2.0. These structures are deemed to be "structurally deficient". The reason they are still standing is that they can carry in excess of 1.0 times the loading; however, if left unrepaired or unreplaced, they would need to be closed or else be in danger of collapse.

    One other point to bring up is life cycle cost. When making decisions to either repair or replace a bridge, one should carefully consider what the life cycle cost of each is. Do you invest $1,000,000 to repair a structure that will have to be replaced anyway in another 20 years (at 2029 construction dollars), or do you invest $3,000,000 to replace the structure and not have to worry about it for 50 to 75 years? The cheaper initial construction cost is not always the cheaper long term option. I will add, however, that DOTs are too often short-sighted when it comes to this.

    This is all occurring now because most of our nation's interstate highway system was built in the 1950s using 1950s materials and technology. These structures are now on the order of 50 years old and many need to be repaired or replaced. Unfortunately, since all these structures were built in the same era with similar technology, they are all experiencing distress or deterioration around the same time.
    The Minnesota bridge that collapsed, indeed due to a design error, really shed light on this issue that the average person has a hard time understanding. Most people, like you, may be wondering what the big deal is, when really almost no bridges actually collapse. Really the reason is because of the inherent factors of safety, which are slowly eroding as these structures continue to deteriorate. In addition, DOTs struggle to keep up with bridge deterioration by many times throwing good money after bad in order to keep an older structure in service.

    As for your comments about projects being driven by political agendas and earmarks — this is definitely true on occasion, particularly for the higher-profile projects. Ideally this would be cleaned up. However, I think on the whole, there are many more positive gains surrounding the vast majority of projects than there are negatives surrounding a relatively few projects. At a time when our country needs job creation, and economic shot in the arm, and is in need of significant infrastructure repairs, I think that the new administration is on the right track with their proposed package.

  6. m.c.r. on January 8, 2009 1:02 pm

    I would agree with you that the "Obama and the media are conspiring to get my money" meme sadly and all to often substitutes for the necessary rigorous analysis these days. However, the infrastructure issue is one that professional engineers were commenting on even back in 2005, when Obama was still just a piece of grit in the oyster shell of conservatism…

  7. Steve Leslie on January 8, 2009 1:49 pm

    I remember traveling to NYC in the 80's and the buzzword was they needed work done on bridges. Post Hurricane Katrina they interviewed the head of the construction firm rebuilding N.O. levee system. He said at that time, once his work is completed the system will not be any better than it was 30 years ago because his father built that levee system and he knew what he was talking about then.

    I heard Julian Epstein democrat strategist talk about infrastructure building. Now all democrats are using infrastructure as their talking points. So this will be the official Democrat platform going forward. Despite the fact that we know government can never follow the money or control their expenses. During Hurricane Katrina, FEMA announced that they lost $6Billion dollars. THEY LOST IT. They don't know where it went.

    The question in my mind is what exactly is infrastructure and what will be the projects proposed. I know what a bridge is but will it be a bridge like Ted Stevens convicted Sen from Alaska would build. A bridge to nowhere? Will it be a road like the one they proposed in Florida that would go into the Everglades for 8 miles. That Sen Stevens added as pork to a bill he sponsored. And coincidentally would benefit a landowner who had tied up the rights to the land in a sophisticated scheme.

    Will it be a subway system like Boston where the budget started out at $5 Billion and then went into $15 Billion and is so horribly engineered that it may never be completed.

    Will it be the New Yankee stadium costing over $1.2 Billion paid by taxpayers and freeing up Hank Steinbrenner to spend $500 Million in off-season salaries. Or perhaps stadiums like The Mets, The Giants, The Jets. I used to go to Old Cleveland Municipal stadium which was built during the New Deal ad. and it served as home to the Indians and Browns for over 60 years.

    How about an Airport like Denver which has been roundly criticized and unnecessary and terribly inefficient.

    How about a Dam or a TVA is this what they have in mind?

    All of the above?

    Yes with our budget deficit now over 1 Trillion and rising where will the money come from to pay for all of these projects. Much to consider. And the brightest people in the romm are people like Al Franken, Burris, Harry Reid, Caroline Kennedy, Bob Byrd, John Kerry. 60 percent of the Senators are lawyers with no business experience whatsoever.

  8. Anton on January 8, 2009 1:58 pm

    It is advantageous to repair and retrofit, rather than replace, a bridge, if anticipated peak unit vehicle usage will be accommodated, load capacity will be adequate for intended traffic, realistic seismic induced movement will be withstood, and a comprehensive cost analysis determines repair and retrofit to be a lower expenditure overall. Furthermore, actual condition, not "intended life-cycle", is the pertinent input to the analysis of whether to repair and retrofit, or replace, a bridge.

    It is economic folly to replace valuable civic infrastructure, in order to placate politicos and facilitate pork-barrel spending in the bridge and road construction industry.

  9. Anonymous on January 8, 2009 2:39 pm

    Nemo,
    thanks for the wonderful post. Your friend is spot on and it is no surprise that civil engineers across this nation share the same belief.

    Anton,
    the bulk of our bridge inventory dates back to the 1950s. How much more retrofitting is in order when peak unit vehicle usage for most of the existing structures has grown more than threefold? So I'm going to put more stats on the table for everyone to see. This is a link to the in-depth study of the Minnesota bridge collapse. Note how many times the structure was retrofitted prior to collapse and the historical growth in peak unit vehicle usage. And please rest assured that the bridge engineering community performs comprehensive cost analysis in all phases of a project. Whether it is in Phase I or II studies and until the last bucket of concrete is placed.

  10. Dan Grossman responds on January 9, 2009 11:52 pm

    To the anonymous engineers who have reviewed my post with such restraint, civility and professional wisdom:

    1. One's barber is perhaps not the most objective person to opine on whether one is in need of a haircut.

    2. Kindly take into account that infrastructure projects are decided upon not by the Wise God of Civil Engineering but by the likes of Ted Stevens and Ted Kennedy.

    For example, the $2.8 billion Boston Big Dig tunnel (3.5 miles, not even under water) wound up taking 20 years and costing over $22 billion, although only partially completed without its rail component.

  11. Hudson Cashdan on January 12, 2009 11:42 am

    Steve Leslie, this is complete non-factual spin: "the New Yankee stadium costing over $1.2 Billion paid by taxpayers." The stadium is not being paid for by the taxpayers, unlike most stadiums around the country. The City is paying (or lending money) for some necessary infrastructure investments — parking, Metro North — that will yield cash payments presumably in perpetuity. A Metro North stop, for instance, will drastically curtail traffic on 95, The Deegan and Cross Bronx while generating revenues for the mass transit system. The tax-exempt construction loans The Yankees (and Mutts) are receiving don't seem that much different than other municipal bond issues by a recreation center, a parking facility, a bridge, etc. Is it unfair to other private enterprises that The Yanks' interest payments are tax free and they aren't paying taxes on the land, the mortgage recording, or the building materials? Yes, but most teams around the country get a far sweater deal. And if The Yanks played in NJ like The Jets and Giants there would be no tax revenues to be exempt from. So, no, The Yanks are a net positive for NY — both in terms of monetary and non-monetary measures.

  12. Anonymous on January 12, 2009 4:12 pm

    Dr. Grossman,

    There are nearly 584,000 bridges in the US inventory. How many "bridges to nowhere" out of 584,000 get decided by the likes of Ted Kennedy and Ted Stevens?

    Bridge and other public engineering projects undergo public hearings, and citizens like you have a chance to give input. Not only that, citizens are free to initiate lawsuits if they feel that their rights are being infringed. Projects around the country are put on hold due to lawsuits initiated via the public.

    As for the "Big Dig", the "leaky" tunnel is a responsibility of the design engineer, the contractor and any other party that may be at fault. The repairs to the tunnel will be done at no cost to the client, structurally and functionally.

    You cite the cost escalation of the project. The cost escalation was mainly due to a massive project being undertaken all at the same time which caused massive mobilization of labor force, material and engineering services. The point to understand about the "Big Dig" is that the infrastructure of Boston had been ignored since the early 1950s and the peak traffic near downtown had already multiplied at least threefold. If instead Boston's infrastructure had been improved over time then the costs would have been significantly lower.

    So let's stop "cherry-picking" media memes and look at the facts.

  13. Anonymous on January 12, 2009 4:27 pm

    As a final note, the "Big Dig" project was not only "3.5 miles" and there were tunnels built under water. The new Ted Williams tunnel is 3/4 of a mile under the ocean surface. It served to alleviate major congestions from old tunnels carrying traffic from downtown Boston to Logan airport. Have you ever driven to downtown Boston to Logan during rush hour in the old days? If you did, then you know the benefits of the new "Big Dig".

    The "Big Dig" also gave Boston the Leonard P. Zakim Bridge and the Storrow Drive Bridge. Both structures alleviated major traffic congestion in the downtown area. The "Big Dig" also gave Boston the I-90 extension, the Thomas O'Neill Tunnel and 300 acres of landscaped space.

  14. Steve Leslie on January 12, 2009 10:01 pm

    To Hudson I am not arguing or "spinning" as you maintain. You make it sound like I am attacking the Vatican. I dont know whether New Yankee Stadium is a good idea a necessary stadium or a good financial deal for the city. . I could not care less. I will let others much smarter than me argue the financials also. If however it makes you feel better let me say the financing is being paid "in part" by taxpayers. Much of it financed with tax exempt bonds. Perhaps you can tell me how many hard dollars did the New York Yankees spend on the stadium. My major point is this the infrastructure that is to be proposed among others for the Obama Administrations New Deal II.

    The really big question is will 3 million jobs be created as his transition team suggests and at what cost. Moreover, what infrastructure are we talking about. Perhaps you might shed light on this. When will the list come out. Will it be bridges, dams, or what.

    Here is an interesting point. Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Tim Russert on Meet the Press and he pointed out that prior to her election campaigning in upstate NY she promised several million jobs for the area. Instead the jobs contracted by nearly 400,000. In classic, Clinton style she said she did not anticipate a Bush Administration messing everything up.

    So with respect to the New Obama Administration and the Congress when will they start on this massive infrastructure build out, where will they start, and who will head the organization to parcel out the money. Speaking of money, perhaps you can share with me where the money will come from. Good luck on that one.

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