Here we are again, wringing our hands over another fatal infrastructure failure and wondering, "What's next?"
During the 1970s and '80s there was a rash of collapses of major highway bridges in the United States that are eerily similar to the tragedy in Minneapolis. Although these resulted in many deaths and economic disruption, they also resulted in action. Congress pumped millions into improving the condition of the nation's bridges. Obviously, this funding didn't go far enough.
Fortunately, catastrophic failures such as the one that occurred in Minneapolis are rare and almost always preventable if addressed in a timely manner. However, complacency can be disastrous. We should be very wary of claims that the situation is under control, that unsafe bridges will be closed immediately and that there's nothing to worry about. The levee failures in New Orleans should have taught us to parse such reassurances carefully.
Here in California we only have to look as far back as April, when a tanker truck fire destroyed a key off-ramp from the Bay Bridge, to see the havoc that even relatively minor disruptions to an overstressed highway system can cause. Since the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes in 1989 and 1994, the state has done a good job in reducing the seismic vulnerabilities of its bridges. But this is not enough. We need to ensure that we have well-funded programs in place to reduce the likelihood of "neglectful failures" to as near zero as possible.
The bridges around the Los Angeles ports are a good place to start. All projections show that goods movement will increase dramatically in the coming decades to become a major source of new jobs for the region. But, the trucks that are at the heart of the logistics industry really take a toll on bridges and pavements. A constant stream of heavy vehicles can prematurely age a bridge regardless of how well it was designed and constructed. The 40-year old Desmond Bridge is a good case in point. How well are all these bridges holding up under loads much greater than anticipated?
Not just bridges
Unfortunately, the problem goes much deeper than just bridges. All of California's infrastructure is aging and even Los Angeles has entered a genteel middle age. After every newsworthy infrastructure failure, the pundits say all the right things about the importance of sustaining these critical systems and politicians rush in with money to repair what could have been avoided. The simple truth is that we as a nation just don't have a particularly good track record when it comes to getting out front on infrastructure investment. We can always find something that has more appeal than maintaining and repairing bridges, roads, and levees. Without New Orleans as a backdrop, would Californians have supported the infrastructure bonds in 2006?
You typically hear people say, "But we haven't any money!"
Really? California has managed to spend a great deal of money on a great many things over the years. Whether we have the will to raise it and spend it on keeping our infrastructure safe and reliable is another question. Everything must be on the table: increased fuel taxes, more "fee for service" arrangements, and container fees for improving goods movement. We also need to look at opening the door to the billions of dollars of private capital from pension funds (including Calpers) and insurance companies that are looking to invest in U.S. infrastructure. There are many options available, including congestion pricing which Los Angeles carefully avoided when the Federal Highway Administration was looking for cities to try out the concept.
And everyone gets to play. The days when federal largesse flowed in torrents to the states are over. Likewise, Los Angeles and other local governments will have to shoulder more of the burden as well. We need a realistic and bipartisan strategy for maintaining and rebuilding infrastructure throughout the state. There are many challenges to doing this, but engineering is not a major one.
If our political process cannot muster the will to raise the funds needed to keep our infrastructure in good operating condition, and keep voter trust by spending it only for that purpose, more than bridges will be at risk.
Richard G. Little is the director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California, a non-partisan research center established to raise the public's awareness of infrastructure and to encourage strategic investment.
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