The State of the Union — Crumbling
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
The numbers are staggering. More than one in four of America's nearly 600,000 bridges need significant repairs or are burdened with more traffic than they were designed to carry, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
A third of the country's major roadways are in substandard condition - a significant factor in a third of the more than 43,000 traffic fatalities each year, according to 2005 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic jams waste 4 billion hours of commuters' time and nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline a year, the Texas Transportation Institute calculates.
Dams, too, are at risk. The number of dams that could fail has grown 134 percent since 1999 to 3,346, and more than 1,300 of those are "high-hazard," meaning their collapse would threaten lives, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) found. More than a third of dam failures or near failures since 1874 have happened in the last decade.
Underground, aging and inadequate sewer systems spill an estimated 1.26 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every year, resulting in an estimated $50.6 billion in cleanup costs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Much of America is held together by Scotch tape, bailing wire and prayers," said Donald F. Kettl, director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.
Fixing these problems and others threatening the nation's critical infrastructure would cost $1.6 trillion - more than half of the annual federal budget, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates. And that doesn't include what it will cost for new capacity to serve a growing population.
Recognizing the importance of structures so integral to U.S. commerce and Americans' well-being and safety, local, state and federal governments already are budgeting nearly two-thirds of the $1.6 trillion needed for infrastructure work. The problem is they raid many of those funds for other purposes, ASCE says.
Coming up with new money to fill the funding gap has become a political nightmare, with politicians and the public trying to avoid anything that looks like a higher tax.
"We have convinced ourselves that infrastructure is free, that someone else should be paying or that we have paid our share," said Mike Pagano, an urban planning expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Infrastructure is the four-syllable jawbreaker that governments use to describe the concrete, stone, steel, wires and wood that Americans rely on every day but barely notice until something goes awry. Broadly speaking, it includes airports, the electrical energy grid, hazardous and solidwaste storage sites, navigable inland waterways, public parks, schools and even the security to protect all of those structures.
While the federal government bears the broadest responsibility to keep America's gears turning, state and local governments are accountable for supplying more than half of the money and all of the manpower to build and maintain the country's vast ground transportation network. States also have regulatory oversight of 85 percent of dams and help fund drinking- water and wastewater systems. Federal and state officials share the blame for shortfalls in America's maintenance budget. Congress hasn't raised the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon - which pays for about 45 percent of all road construction - since 1993, nor have many state leaders been willing to charge drivers more at the pump to pay for local road repairs.
The association of state dam officials contends that most state dam safety programs are underfunded, understaffed and often don't have adequate authority to regulate safety standards or emergency plans. Likewise, the federal dam safety program, which helps pay for the upkeep of structures, never has been fully funded by Congress.
The EPA estimates that the nation is falling short on water infrastructure by $22 billion annually. The federal Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which makes low-interest loans to clean up or protect water supplies, has shrunk from more than $3 billion in 1990 to roughly $1 billion in 2007.
The consequences of skimping can be dire:
• On Aug. 1, 2007, the Interstate 35 bridge in downtown Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring at least 80. Losing the state's most heavily traveled bridge is costing an estimated $400,000 daily in extra commuting time and gasoline, said Brian McClung, a spokesman for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R).
(A report issued Jan. 15 by the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the bridge collapse on inadequate steel "gussett" plates that hold the structures angled beams together.)
• Steam pipe explosions in Midtown Manhattan last summer killed one person, injured dozens and disrupted businesses.
• In March 2006, the 116-year-old Kaloko Reservoir Dam in Hawaii collapsed after heavy rains, killing seven people and causing nearly $15 million in damage.
• In August 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain gave way, flooding major parts of New Orleans. The storm and flooding are blamed for more than a thousand deaths and more than $100 billion in damage.
• In May 2002, the Interstate 40 bridge near Webbers Falls, Okla., collapsed into the Arkansas River, killing 14 people.
Despite urgent calls to prevent more tragedy from failed infrastructure, politicians and voters have signaled they are gun-shy of new taxes. After the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge, Minnesota politicians failed to agree to a statewide transportation package, putting off to the 2008 legislative session more debate over a proposed 5-cent hike in the state's gasoline tax. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) twice vetoed gas-tax hikes before the bridge fell.
To begin to address their transportation problems, state governments are borrowing more money, adding user fees such as tolls, and striking deals with private companies, including leasing state assets.
Proposals to pay for bridge and road repairs with tolling are on the upsurge with politicians - though not with the public, especially in Pennsylvania. There, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell last year pushed through a plan to add tolls to a section of Interstate 80 to collect $950 million a year for transportation projects. But a slew of civic groups fear tolls will discourage tourism and trucking along the I-80 corridor and have asked state and federal lawmakers to reconsider.
Rendell has said that if tolls are junked, he will fall back on a plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private company, similar to Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' 2006 lease of the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign firm for a whopping $3.8 billion. Political backlash over that deal became a factor in the 2006 elections, when Democrats recaptured a majority in the Indiana House. Daniels subsequently shelved two smaller proposals for privately built and managed toll roads in the Hoosier State.
But many other states continue to barrel down the path of privatization as more allow for-profit firms to lease, design, build and operate public infrastructure - options that are more widespread in other developed countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, 10 percent to 13 percent of all infrastructure projects involve some public-private partnership, according to Deloitte Services, LP, part of a worldwide consulting firm.
In the United States, more than $21 billion in public-private transportation deals have been signed in the past dozen years, with projects in California, Florida, Texas and Virginia accounting for half of that amount. Also, more than 25,000 water and wastewater systems are managed privately, according to a 2006 Deloitte report.
One new cutting-edge program will let Missouri repair or replace 800 of its small and medium-sized bridges within five years. The state will choose a team of private contractors to finance construction costs up front and maintain the structures for 25 years. The Show Me State will pay back the builders annually for a quarter century, costing the state at least double the initial construction costs but providing a quick fix for ailing bridges. The plan spares lawmakers from seeking higher gasoline taxes or new tolls.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is calling for legislation to encourage more public-private partnerships to handle $500 billion in public projects that he says are needed over the next 20 years. That plan follows his success in 2006 in convincing voters to approve more than $40 billion in bonds for transportation, water and school-building projects.
In 2007, Texans approved more than $6 billion in bonds for roads, flood control and clean-water projects.
Overall, states' debts nearly doubled between 2000 and 2005, from $1 billion to $1.9 billion, according to Federal Reserve Board data.
Using bonds to pay for capital projects can be a worthwhile reason for debt because the results provide longterm public and economic benefits, said Sujit CanagaRetna, a fiscal analyst for the Council of State Governments. However, Chris Edwards, who studies budget issues at the libertarian Cato Institute, argues that debt, even to finance infrastructure, just defers the tax bill. Instead, he favors the privatization approach.
One of the chief challenges facing infrastructure is simply age. Much of the nation's transportation infrastructure was erected in the boom days after World War II and is reaching the end of its life cycle.
Half of the nation's bridges were built before 1964, when the ill-fated Minneapolis bridge was constructed. More than half of the bridges in Rhode Island and Massachusetts also are rated deficient or obsolete, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.
More than a third of the nation's nearly 83,000 dams already are 50 years old, and within a decade, 60 percent will reach the half-century mark.
Cast-iron pipes from the 19th century still carry water to sinks in some of the nation's oldest cities and are overdue to be replaced, according to the American Water Works Association. Although it has not done a state-by-state survey, the association estimates that replacing worn-out water pipes will cost $250 billion over 30 years. In November, Congress overrode President Bush's veto to authorize up to $23 billion over 15 years for water projects.
Another worry is that the nation's growing population is creating a need for more capacity. Today, 246 million cars - 278 percent more than 50 years ago - are forced to squeeze onto 47,000 miles of interstate that have increased only 15 percent during the last half-century.
New Jersey has the most snarled traffic in the country with congestion choking 58 percent of its urban roads and 52 percent of rural roads, according to an analysis of federal data by The Road Information Project.
To handle growing transportation needs, the federal highway system will have to double during the next 50 years and public transportation ridership should double within 20 years, according to recommendations from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Railways should be prepared to handle a 63 percent increase in freight by 2035, the association estimated.
Besides stretching the country's infrastructure to its limits, the growing population puts more people in harm's way when something goes wrong. Development in floodplains and below dams has contributed to the fast-rising costs of flood damage, now an annual $6 billion, according to the Association of State Floodplain Managers.
Dams are a major concern for states, which have regulatory oversight of 85 percent of those structures even though nearly two-thirds are privately owned. The federal government monitors the other 15 percent, mostly major hydro-power generators such as the massive Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.
Ohio has the highest percentage of dams listed as deficient, with 48 percent, according to data compiled by ASDSO. Indiana is second, with nearly 45 percent of its dams rated in need of repair. States set their own standards for rating dam safety.
Another challenge is that infrastructure repairs simply aren't as sexy as ribbon-cuttings. The public and politicians are more likely to support new construction, leaving existing structures wanting, said Pagano, the urban planning expert in Chicago. It's like buying a car and budgeting only for the purchase price, ignoring the costs of insurance, fuel, oil changes and new tires, he said.
The Government Performance Project (GPP), which measures how effectively states are managed, called unfunded and deferred maintenance "unquestionably the biggest problem for states in their management of infrastructure." (The GPP, like Stateline.org, is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.)
Overall, rehabilitating a dilapidated structure can cost six to 20 times more than routine maintenance would have cost, Deloitte's analysts found.
For example, the Minnesota bridge that collapsed last August had been tagged "structurally deficient" in 1990. But the state deferred a $1.5 million steel-reinforcement project scheduled for 2006 and ordered more frequent inspections. The cost to build a new bridge is slated at $250 million.
States also are skimping on staff to check up on existing structures. Minnesota had 77 bridge inspectors for 14,000 bridges. "There aren't enough hours in the workday for 77 inspectors to check 14,000 bridges the way we should" with an inspection every two years, Minnesota bridge inspector Bart Andersen testified on Capitol Hill.
One problem of paying for repairs is that the pot of money for improvements is steadily shrinking in value, if not in size.
Matthew L. Garrett, director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, said that even with a growing number of taxpayers, revenues aren't keeping pace with the bills. Spending on bricks-and-mortar projects equaled about 2 percent of per-capita personal income in the 1950s and 1960s but has shrunk to less than 1 percent, Garrett said.
Compounding the problem, prices for steel, concrete and land have grown rapidly in recent years. Road-building costs are projected to increase more than 70 percent between 1993, when federal gas taxes were last increased, and 2015, according to an AASHTO report. The association estimates that federal gasoline taxes would have to rise 10 cents to 28.4 cents per gallon by 2015 just to keep up with maintenance.
This article was excerpted from "State of the States 2008," Stateline.org's annual report on significant state policy developments and trends released Jan. 16. In parentheses are any news updates since the report was sent to the printer.