abandoned railroad

The New York Times published an article on the decaying infrastucture in Russia, in particular The Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam in Siberia.  While the United States does not have infrastructure falling apart in the same way, the I-35 W bridge tragedy in Minneapolis last year awoke the American conscience to the necessity of infrastructure upkeep and its costs.  As we go forward with infrastructure investment in the 21st century and debate what means transportation are best and most economically efficient it is important to keep in mind the cost of maintenance going forward.  The cost of transportation infrastructure is not truly depicted in the cost of construction, maintenance costs occur every year.

America has the twofold problem of historically not calculating the cost of maintenance when building transportation infrastructure and frequently choosing to build the cheapest option, which of course also usually deteriorates fastest.  While Stephen B. Goddard’s references in his 1994 book, Getting There,  are slightly dated, he also describes an awful lot of the infrastructure in this country:

In a nutshell, the Europeans build their freeways thicker and with a deeper base than in America.  Washington also gives states an incentive to neglect maintenance by paying 90 percent of the the cost for new roads , yet nothing for their repair.

In America the lowest bidder usually wins a highway contract, which removes incentive for innovation.  And neither are contractors held responsible.  When in 1991 Congress considered a bill requiring contractors to build to performance standards, the measure had the support of Washington’s highway establishment, state officials, and advocacy groups; but the Transportation Builders Association lobbied successfully for Congress to kill it.

I am not suggesting that the U.S. is in danger of approaching Russia’s level of difficulty.  Rather, all I am suggesting is that as infrastructure debates go forward we examine the total cost of a system; the cost of maintenance, operation and construction.  When we examine the cost of infrastructure on construction estimates alone we are practicing negligent economics.  A road that must be rebuilt every 20 years is not actually as cheap as it first looks.  We should invest more money up front to make our investments in infrastructure last.  In addition, a change in federal procedure would benefit all, if allocations for transportation funding included commitment to upkeep of new infrastructure, for at least a period of time.