After the bridge collapse Minneapolis on Aug. 1, the Department of Homeland Security announced that there was no evidence of terrorism. Similar declarations followed the July explosion of an 83-year-old steam pipe in Manhattan and an August 2003 power blackout that affected 50 million people and shut down airports across the Northeast. All very alarming, but no terrorism here. Carry on.
This is a curious form of reassurance. Instead of sporadic attacks by a loosely organized enemy, we face a systematic threat well distributed across the nation. The strain on our foundations can cut Americans off from their jobs, their families and emergency services, sometimes just for short periods that don't make the news and sometimes permanently. While it's always nice to know there was no malice aforethought, infrastructure failures suggest a homeland that is less than secure.
How did this happen? It's true that state and federal politicians have for too long put off raising taxes to deal with these problems. (In October of next year the federal highway fund is expected to go into the red, forcing the issue.) It hasn't helped that prices of concrete and asphalt have spiked in recent years as India and China have poured money into their road systems. But those are just excuses. The real problem is bigger and simpler.
During the past 50 years, transportation has become a patronage program in this country. In the name of keeping the Federal Government small (and political risks low), Congress earmarks pet projects and then allows states to spend the remaining federal funds any way they like. Without real oversight or clear national goals, many local politicians opt for flashy projects that employ a lot of people instead of undertaking boring repairs that no one notices until disaster strikes. "Cities and states have been sinking millions of dollars into convention centers, stadiums--anything that shines," says Christopher Swope, an editor at Governing magazine, who covers transportation. "At the same time, they're neglecting the stuff that's not so sexy. You don't have a groundbreaking when you do repair work on an old bridge."
There is another way. In December, Sir Rod Eddington, former head of British Airways, completed a study on transport for the U.K. He evaluated all kinds of projects--from fancy high-speed trains to simple bike paths--and calculated the return on investment per pound spent. What he found was surprising. "Small can be beautiful," his report concluded. Large projects like new rail lines tended to be less beneficial for the money than modest ones, like widening an old road. The British government is now funding more projects on the basis of this more rational notion of overall value.
America, like Europe, will eventually adopt more private roads and tolls. But the U.S. needs to adopt a new mindset as well. Infrastructure is a matter of homeland security, a concept that Dwight Eisenhower understood when he started the federal highway system during the cold war. The healthier a locale is before a disaster (or terrorist attack), the healthier it will be afterward. As we learned the hard way in New Orleans, the opposite is also true. But if we invest in strong levees, roads and rails, then even inevitable calamities will have fewer consequences. We will be able to move people out of harm's way, get help to victims and go to work. Solid infrastructure, in other words, can be the ultimate force multiplier. [This article contains a complex diagram. Please see hardcopy or pdf.]