Dazzling Knowledge

Friday, August 10, 2007

Why we cannot reform infrastructure maintenance

Soon after the tragic bridge collapse in Minnesota, I thought about what could be done to reform the system so that we can prevent such avoidable disasters. It soon occurred to me that the big problem would be politicians. Think about it, even with ample funding, what incentive does a politician have to invest in the mundane, but important task of routine infrastructure maintenance. Nobody gets credit when things run smoothly. Politicians get credit for highly publicized projects that are often of questionable civic value.

Here's Jim Peron on the issue:

Earmarks divert spending from the necessary projects to the frivolous. The New York Times reports that in spite of historically high spending on transportation, highway funds are allocated according to "the political muscle of lawmakers, rather than dire need," which means "construction on new, politically popular roads and transit projects rather than the mundane work of maintaining the worn-out ones."

The Times adds that politicians are keen to fund politically-correct projects for transport over actual maintenance projects. This has "resulted in expensive transit systems that are not used by the vast majority of American commuters."

The chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is Representative James Oberstar, a Democrat from Minnesota. Oberstar recently bragged about bagging $12 million in funds for the state, but the New York Times notes that $10 million of that "is slated for a new 40-mile commuter rail line to Minneapolis, called the Northstar," and "the remaining $2 million is divided among a new bike and walking path and a few other projects, including highway work and interchange reconstruction."

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) says that the political process means "that routine but important things like maintenance always get shortchanged because it's nice for somebody to cut a ribbon for a new structure."


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