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Taran March @ Quality Digest


If Bridges Could Talk

‘Buddy, can you spare a dime?’

Published: Thursday, March 29, 2018 - 11:03

The rutted road to Quality Digest’s office is a pretty good example of highway health across the country. Running to the city’s shuttered airport, it’s riddled with potholes and cracks that flourish along a timeline of repair and despair. Some are filled, some are returning to the empty state; others are new arrivals that test commuters’ alertness first thing in the morning. The city does its best to stay on top of repairs, but it’s clear the budget has been spread across too much surface, a thin pat of butter scraped over a hefty slice of toast.

Most U.S. communities could cite their own variation on that road, and by now everyone knows to add “infrastructure” to their mental list of uncomfortable problems. However, what troubles me lately is a weary sense of national encumbrance, as if the problem is a collective millstone around our necks—too big, too many moving parts, way too expensive. What gives? If building the country’s roads, rails, ports, and dams was a complex but ultimately successful vision in the first place, why can’t we fix them now? Our tools are quantum times more labor-saving compared to what we used back in the day, and we’re no strangers to project management. Surely repairing our basic installations and facilities is something about which we can all agree? Or should agree.

Railroad repair tools, circa 1898

While searching for some common sense to this issue, I was cheered to find the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) excellent website, 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. Every four years, this group grades the state of the country’s transportation arteries, its bridges, electrical grids, plumbing, and half a dozen other categories. At D+ our overall grade remains unchanged from 2013. Here’s a sampling:
• Highways: D. They’re in poor condition and were never designed to handle the current traffic volume. As a result, drivers accrue more wear and tear on their vehicles, and spend more time sitting in traffic—about 43 hours a year.
• Bridges: C+. Some 60,000 are considered structurally deficient, with four in 10 highway bridges 50 years or older.
• Railroads: B. An indication of what attention and resources can do. Private freight companies, which own most of the lines, invested $27.1 billion in their maintenance beginning in 2015.
• Airports: D. The two dozen busiest ones will soon face Thanksgiving-type congestion at least one day a week.
• Ports: C+. One of the bright spots in the report, although only a few of the country’s 960 ports can handle the world’s mega ships; the rest need dredging.
• Drinking water: D. We waste two trillion gallons every year, thanks to leaky pipes and water main breaks.
• Dams average 56 years old and get a D; not too surprising, mass transit scores a dismal D–.

But it wasn’t ASCE’s stark reporting that caught my attention so much as the brisk optimism and can-do attitude. The site isn’t just a place where the impossible goes to die. Spend a little time there, and you realize ASCE has provided a great service to the nation. There are grades by state and type of infrastructure. There are charts, facts, and figures to ponder. And there are positive reports on projects that have worked around the country, which help foster the elbow-grease realization that, like it or not and regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, we’re all in this together.

A railroad repair crew, circa 1917

The site also lays down a gauntlet in the form of the ASCE Grand Challenge, which “asks civil engineers from all backgrounds and at every career stage to implement performance-based standards, resilience, innovation, and life-cycle cost analysis in all projects.”

Performance-based standards… innovation… life-cycle cost analysis. Do any of those sound familiar to those in the quality world? Maybe we shouldn’t wait for AI to answer the call, or flying cars to raise us above the problem, but offer to share the legacy knowledge amassed in QC departments everywhere.

The wallet-pinching part

Among the ASCE’s recommendations, which fall under the headings “leadership and planning” and “preparing for the future,” is a third, inevitable category: investment. “Put the ‘trust’ back in trust funds,” it urges. “Dedicated public funding sources on the local, state, and federal levels need to be consistently and sufficiently funded from user-generated fees.” In the case of highways, ASCE specifies “sufficiently funded” as a hike in the federal motor fuel tax, to “at least” 25 cents a gallon (up from 18.4 cents).

To ensure this message is crystal clear, item four under this category states, “Infrastructure owners and operators must charge, and Americans must be willing to pay, rates and fees that reflect the true cost of using, maintaining, and improving all infrastructure, including our water, waste, transportation, and energy services.”

Let the squabbling begin. Currently in play is a federal proposal to spend $1.5 trillion on a multiyear fix-it plan, of which $200 billion would be supplied at the federal level over the next 10 years. Key to this proposal are public-private partnerships (PPPs) that focus on state and local projects. It’s a funding solution that meets with popular approval, since one fiscally strapped state is generally disinclined to help fund another’s bridge building. But PPPs aren’t easy to come by, and many of them favor projects in urban environments, which help solve only part of the problem.

Moreover, per the ASCE challenge, quality control can be an issue with PPPs.

“You’ve got to make sure that [the private contractors] are not short-changing quality in favor of lowering costs in order to make money,” says Robert Inman, a Wharton professor of business economics and public policy. “If quality is a difficult thing to judge, you’re going to have to supervise these guys pretty heavily. And if you’re going to supervise them, why don’t you just do it?”

As for raising the motor fuel tax, it’s looking increasingly like an unpopular action whose time has come. The last federal hike was in 1993; combined with individual states’ tax rates, motorists pay on average 44 cents per gallon in taxes, which doesn’t bring in enough to fund the highway and bridge projects currently deemed critical, never mind saving for the future. Part of the shortfall can be attributed to improved gas mileage for cars—or in the case of electric vehicles, no gas mileage at all.

Here’s a thought: Why couldn’t we set up a system where people who were willing and able could volunteer on local infrastructure projects for a proportionate tax break of some sort? Kind of like jury duty with bragging rights. Or would that cause all sorts of mayhem with bureaucracies, regulations, and labor unions? Seems like it has real possibilities, with friendly state vs. state competitions, and best practices flying back and forth at the speed of Twitter feed.

Ever hear of gandy dancers? These were crews that maintained railways, so-called from the name of the lever or “gandy” they wielded, and the synchronized movement required to straighten—using only human muscle and basic physics—a bent steel rail.

Now that’s teamwork.


About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is Quality Digest’s editorial director A 35-year veteran of publishing, she has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities. When not plotting the course of QD with the team, she can usually be found clicking around the internet in search of news and clues to the human condition.


Infrastructure spending

Unfortunately, trust funds are all too often used as piggy banks to "close the unforseen shortfall in the general fund". Maybe not a totally bad idea but, for some strange reason, that money never gets repaid.

Then there is the issue of urban vs. rural. Political logic, at the state level, gives projects in urban areas a higher priority than an equal or more serious problem in a rural area. While it less visible across the country, from my vantage point, overlooking the D.C. metro area, I am continually aware that, at the federal level, congress will skew the distribution of large portions of funds based on political clout. During his tenure in office, Senator Byrd of West Virginia, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, steered vast amounts of highway (among other things) money into the state.

And, let us not forget auto vs. mass transit; the idea that mass transit will alleviate auto traffic offsetting the need for repairs or improvements. As a traffic engineer once pronounced, increased access from a suburb to an economic center will, in the not long term, not improve traffic flow, but simply encourage more people to move to that suburb.

As for volunteerism, that will be a non-starter. You will hear the cry, nay scream of pain, that wage earners are being displaced.