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Billions for Bridges: A Local Government Look

by Timothy Tiernan on February 28, 2013
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Infrastructure bridge highway building

Of the nation’s approximately 600,000 highway bridges, guess how many are owned by counties, cities or towns.

More than half—302,462 to be precise. The states own 280,218, and the remaining 17,316 are owned by other entities such as private businesses and federal agencies.

So when President Obama called on Congress two weeks ago to improve America’s failing transportation infrastructure, mayors and governors alike listened in.

The President’s three-part infrastructure agenda includes a “Fix It First” focus that would invest $50 billion on the most urgent upgrades in the country, a “Rebuild America Partnership” to attract private investment, and an effort to cut the red tape by halving project timelines and modernizing policies.

The “Fix It First” financial infusion would include $40 billion toward urgent upgrades to highways, bridges, public transportation systems, and airports, and $10 billion for the creation of a national infrastructure bank intended to draw in private investments. The National League of Cities has supported the proposed investment in infrastructure but raised concerns about the infrastructure bank, stating that the bank "could put the current tax exemption for municipal bonds in danger," bonds that cash-strapped local governments depend on for projects.

That said, I want to focus on the $40 billion and the bridges specifically: Seventy thousand (11.5%) of the nation’s bridges are considered “structurally deficient,” meaning that they’re not necessarily unsafe but that they must be monitored, inspected, and maintained. Below is a screenshot of the highest-ranking counties for bridge repair urgency in terms of structural deficiency, taken from the Transportation for America (T4 America) report and meant only to exemplify the need for action:

 Infrastructure report on counties most in need of bridge repairs

How Will This Play Out?

How positive can we be about President Obama’s plan? History doesn’t make for optimists. Some have commented that the president could be “all talk,” as a similar infrastructure investment initiative fell flat during his first term. And the ultimate investment in maintenance alone is daunting: The Federal Highway Administration estimated (2009 statistics) that $70.9 billion would be needed to address the backlog of deficient bridges.

Old Versus New

According to the T4 America report, states have generally given preference to new construction over maintenance. In 2008, all states combined spent 30% of federal funding they received on new construction, compared with 18% for maintenance. But if we’re serious about job growth coming from infrastructure investment, then we should at least reverse these percentages: Per the report, “Repair work on roads and bridges generates 16% more jobs than construction of new bridges and roads.” Moreover, preventive maintenance provides a higher return on investment than deferred maintenance, as repairs that are put off can cost three times (a conservative estimate) the preventive costs. Just consider the costs of a new or old engine you would hypothetically buy if you failed to bring in your car for scheduled oil changes (analogy not to scale).

Your Take?

How do you feel about the president’s infrastructure plan, whether “Fix It First” or the other elements? We encourage local government officials to voice their opinion.

About eCivis

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