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March 17, 2014
Bruce Maiman: Priorities are not on infrastructure repair

Bay_Bridge.JPG(March 17 - By Bruce Maiman, Special to The Bee)

Last week's explosion and collapse of two apartment houses in Harlem, N.Y., was a reminder we didn't need about America's crumbling infrastructure. Like the Minneapolis bridge collapse of 2007, or last year on Interstate 5 north of Seattle. Our roads, bridges, tunnels and grid systems are not only in deplorable and deteriorating condition, but dangerously so because of our penny-wise, pound-foolish attitude.

California especially suffers in the latest report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which regularly grades the state of the nation's infrastructure - currently a D-plus, if you're wondering. California structures ranking dead last included the I-10 span over Normandie Avenue in Los Angeles, crossed by 321,000 vehicles daily; the runways at San Francisco International Airport; and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where goods routinely pile up, awaiting shipment by trucks and trains.

California's highway system has ranked in the bottom 10 every year since 2000. Our interstates are the most congested, and pavement conditions - urban and rural - currently rank 49th.

Some gas and water mains in the Harlem neighborhood where the explosion occurred are 127 years old. In Philadelphia, pipes average 78 years of age, with some dating back to 1824.

Of America's 607,000 bridges, some 66,000 are structurally deficient. Laid end to end, they'd reach from Denver to Washington, D.C. Americans make 260 million trips a day over those bridges.

Properly repairing and replacing the nation's infrastructure system would require about $220 billion a year through 2040, according to ASCE.

In 2010, all levels of government - local, state and federal - spent a total of $100 billion.

The Federal Highway Trust Fund, the principal financing source for transportation projects, began the fiscal year with just $1.6 billion in cash, records show. It's fueled largely by a federal tax on gas - 18.4 cents a gallon - that hasn't changed since 1993, having lost 40 percent of its value since due to inflation.

President Barack Obama recently proposed injecting $300 billion into infrastructure repair, but Republicans blocked his last attempt at such funding and have signaled similar action this year.

Some argue that infrastructure spending is inefficient, misallocated by politics and mismanagement. That's understandable. High-speed rail starting in Fresno as a favor to a Democratic congressman's support for Obamacare? A Bay Bridge billions over budget and still saddled with structural questions?

Indeed, Californians pay the nation's highest gasoline taxes, yet we rank 43rd in the money spent per capita on infrastructure. In routinely raiding transportation funds to pay other bills, California politicians calling for infrastructure improvements only hurt themselves.

Yet, after the Minneapolis bridge collapse, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill to raise gas taxes for infrastructure repair, Minnesota's first such increase in two decades. If the enormity of 13 deaths and 145 injured failed to create a sense of urgency, why believe Pawlenty would fund pre-emptive repairs on a bridge inspectors had rated as "poor" for 17 consecutive years? The Legislature overrode his veto.

It's an obvious lesson: Every year we don't keep up adds to the cost to catch up. Or clean up. Paying for Sacramento's levee improvements now will cost far less than a levee breach later, no?

Delays also cost us elsewhere. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the average motorist gets dinged with more than $1,000 in annual auto repairs caused by crumbling roads. Trucking lane bottlenecks cause higher shipping costs and job losses - nearly 900,000 of them by 2020 - and the U.S. economy would suffer nearly $1 trillion in lost GDP growth as a result of the congestion.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars were paid to settle lawsuits brought by bridge collapse survivors in Minneapolis. Why should Pawlenty care? He's out of office. The best lawmakers can do is hope that such failures don't happen in their jurisdictions on their watch.

Our nation's character plays a role here, too. We like building new things and loathe the drudgery of maintaining the old. For politicians, there's little sex appeal in essential maintenance. Despite continuing controversy over its structural integrity, we paid a contractor $49 billion in bonuses for completing the Bay Bridge "on time." Why, so Jerry Brown could have his Labor Day photo op? Would he be just as eager to preside over a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new gusset plate?

It's troubling that we've spent $400 billion, a whopping 75 percent over Lockheed Martin's original estimate, for the F-35 fighter jet, a plane that doesn't really work, designed for wars we'll probably never see again. Lockheed claims the program supports 125,000 jobs in 46 states. Whadda deal: $3.2 million per job.

One wonders how many of those 125,000 people could be put to work in a serious national push for infrastructural repair.

Sadly, America's crumbling infrastructure is like the weather: Everyone complains, but nobody does anything about it.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at