Everyone’s Fault

Wonkette‘s Anonymous Lobbyist, though not an ISTEA junkie like yours truly, kind of nails it on the head:

The current transportation funding mechanism is called SAFETEA-LU, which stands for “Safe Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users,” but the “Lu” is actually former Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young’s wife’s name, so he made his staff come up with a fucking acronym that used that because that’s how stupid and parochial transportation policy is… everyone gets to more or less keep ignoring our crumbling current infrastructure in favor of new roads (which are way more popular with constituents, since they don’t tie up traffic as much as that nasty roadwork). So, everyone won, sorta, and everyone lost, like usual.

In fact, a smart guy* presented a paper at TRB this year called “SAFETEA-LU Earmarks in Minnesota, a Rural Advantage: Minnesota’s Other Growing Pork Industry.” Among his conclusions: “the earmarking process is optimized for political stability, and not for public utility… earmarks are inefficient allocators of resources, in that they… do not explicitly consider long-range national transportation, social, economic, and environmental objectives.”

The paper goes into detail over Oberstar’s earmarks; one which I like is the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program, a $25M fund for bicycling and walking projects around the Twin Cities. (It mostly funded new bike lanes around Mpls in its first year.)

Not that the I-35W’s bridge “50 score… structurally deficient” means anything, really. A bridge scoring in the single digits on the same scale — Hillsborough Street over the CSX tracks, about a mile west of the Capitol — was part of my routine in Raleigh years ago. The last time someone was carried away from CCM in an ambulance was apparently from a fall on the 31st bridge over the IC tracks, which rates a 22; the famously awfully paved Chicago Ave bridge over the river gets an 11; and, perhaps most shockingly, Congress’s bridge over the river (as it emerges from under the Old PO) rates 2. Yes, two, on a 1-100 scale (apparently, Illinois uses 100, other states 120.)

* Michael Smart from UCLA, ha ha

One thought on “Everyone’s Fault

  1. “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz, former NYC chief transportation engineer, writes in the 13 August NYT:

    The typical federal and state response to a bridge collapse is to throw a bucket of money at the problem but then attach strings. Usually, the money can primarily be used on expensive capital improvements or new bridges but not for the “mop and pail” work the bridges really need. It’s like not doing basic maintenance on your car, letting the oil run out, waiting for the engine to seize up and then replacing the car. The cure of routine maintenance would have cost much less.

    The United States spends a small fraction, proportionately, of what other countries spend on the basic maintenance of infrastructure. States and localities do this because if they wait until bridges are in poor condition, they become eligible for federal funds. The budget offices in cities and states view federal money as other people’s money. When it comes to infrastructure we have become junkies for other people’s money…

    A 1989 study, which I commissioned for New York City’s transportation department, concluded that the city’s 840 bridges could be maintained in near pristine condition for $150 million annually. At the time, instead of conducting routine maintenance, we were spending $400 million a year to replace parts and even whole bridges.

    Rather than lubricating the bearing plates that allow the Williamsburg Bridge to slide back and forth with changes in temperature and loads, we let the bearing plates jam, which cracked the concrete pedestal the span sat on. Twice a year we needed to stop traffic, jack the bridge up and slide the pedestal back in place. Instead of coating the bridge’s steel, we allowed it to become nearly paper-thin. This required the replacement of beams, which made the repairs eligible for federal funds, instead of merely a paint job with city money.

    STPP has this nice graphic, summing up the lifespan of a road. $1 spent to repair a road at age 75%* (at which point the road’s condition has declined 40%) = $5 spent to repair the road at age 87%. And, of course, it will cost much more to rebuild the whole thing at age 100%+.

    Their 2003 report points out that in 2001, Virginia spent three times more on new road capacity than on road repair & rehabilitation — even though nearly 2/3 of its roads were in poor to fair condition. That’s not exactly atypical.

    * i.e., 75% of its design life

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