Politics & Policy

The Myth of America’s ‘Crumbling’ Infrastructure

(Photo: Pixabay)
A politically expedient lie is still a lie.

It’s Infrastructure Week (again), and who among us can contain his excitement?

The president, for one.

According to reports, President Trump wanted to announce the biggest investment in public works since President Eisenhower unveiled the interstate highway system. But in the wake of tax cuts, the real deficit was too big to close what Trump calls “the infrastructure deficit.” So he had to settle for a plan that would spend $200 billion in federal taxpayer money over the next decade and lay the rest of the $1.5 trillion on state and local taxpayers.

It almost surely won’t fly. Many states are as broke as the federal government — and they can’t print money.

In his big-building, big-spending ambitions, Trump is at his most conventional. Politicians, as transportation expert Randal O’Toole puts it, have a deep-seated bias in favor of “ribbon-cutting over brooms.” They just love wielding a giant pair of scissors to cut a shiny ribbon on a new project. You can put your name on a new tunnel or bridge. It’s harder to take credit for fixing an existing one.

Even Trump’s insistence that our infrastructure is “crumbling” is among the most enduring clichés of American politics. A search of LexisNexis shows that America’s infrastructure has been crumbling since the late 1970s. And it’s simply not true. The most recent data is from 2012, when President Obama was insisting that our infrastructure was crumbling. At that time, 80 percent of our highways were in acceptable shape or better. Nearly 97 percent of rural roads met that grade.

Bridge failures in Washington state in 2013 and Minnesota in 2007 were greeted as symbolic proof of systemic disrepair. But the Washington state bridge collapsed because a truck driver carrying an oversized load ignored posted warnings. It would have collapsed if it had been brand-new. And the Minnesota collapse was the result of a construction defect.

Meanwhile, the conditions of our bridges have been improving consistently for the last two decades.

Of course some American infrastructure could use updating. The problem, however, isn’t under-investment. In 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office, federal, state, and local governments spent $416 billion on infrastructure.

The real problem is that we don’t spend money on the right problems.

A recent exposé by the New York Times showed that politicians and the unions that own them are to blame for the Big Apple’s deteriorating subway system. For years they’ve raided transportation funds for pet projects, like failing upstate ski resorts.

Beyond New York, a perfect storm of ribbon-cutting fetishizing, environmentalism, and envy of other countries has led to high-speed-rail mania. Although zippy trains are nifty, they zoom past the fact America has the best rail system — for our needs. In Europe, trucks move goods and trains move people. In America, we do it the other way around.

Trump’s proposal does include a few worthwhile ambitions, such as streamlining the approval process for public works and improving incentives to come in under budget.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, then-California governor Pete Wilson used his emergency powers to bypass the usual red tape and unionized extortion that drive up costs and string out construction time. Experts thought it would take two years to fix the Santa Monica Freeway. Wilson offered contractors huge cash bonuses to meet tight deadlines. The repairs were completed in less than three months.

The Trump plan, however, would leave it to Congress to figure out how to de-boondoggle-ize infrastructure projects, which is not a cause for optimism.

Trump sees infrastructure investment pretty much the same way Democrats do — as a jobs program. That doesn’t work either (see: Japan). But if Trump had begun his presidency with building as his top priority, he would have won a lot of bipartisan support and turned the GOP into a big-government party much sooner.

Alas — or, depending on your point of view, lucky break — he spent his capital, political and fiscal, elsewhere. And now there’s none left for the riot of ribbon-cutting he wanted.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More