Nel's New Day

May 24, 2013

The GOP – Not Even Penny-Wise While Pound Foolish

Yesterday, a part of the I-5 bridge that crosses the Skagit River in northern Washington state collapsed, sending two vehicles down 50 feet into the 46-degree, 15-foot-deep water and three people to the hospital. With no loss of life, the loss of this bridge, which carries 71,000 people each day, may not seem like a big deal. But it is.

People have been well aware that bridges and other infrastructures across the country are crumbling. Almost six years ago, a Minneapolis bridge collapse that killed 13 people drew attention to the expanding disaster caused by Congressional unwillingness to address this problem. Last year, the Federal Highway Administration reported that 67,000 of our 607,000 bridges are structurally deficient. That’s almost 11 percent of all bridges, only one percent less than when the I-35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. Motorists take 210 million trips daily across at least one deficient bridge.

Some studies  identified bridges needing the most work, and some states installed sensors to track bridges’ deterioration on a computer. With a lack of funding, however, bridges, with an average age of 42, failed to receive the attention that they need. The nation has a C+ for maintaining bridges, and governments need to add $8 billion annually to their investment to take care of these bridges.

A truck with an excessively tall load striking a steel girder may have caused the collapse over Washington’s Skagit River. Naysayers could claim that the bridge was probably fine. But safe bridges are not classified as “fracture critical,” which means that the entire structure can be brought down if only one major part fails. Inspected twice during the last year, the bridge received a sufficiency rating of 47 out of 100 at its November 2012 inspection. The state average is 80, according to an Associated Press analysis. Built in 1955, the bridge is one of almost 2,000 bridges in classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

The real news is that public construction spending is lower than it’s been in over 20 years.

bridge construction

In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama spoke about addressing “an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair.” As he put it, “Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire–a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and Internet, high-tech schools, self-healing power grids.” He supports the “Fix-It-First” program, but as Matt Yglesias explained:

“[P]oliticians and real-estate developers like to open brand new roads with fun ribbon-cutting ceremonies and new subdivisions. Finding money to actually maintain roads we already have is less appealing. Consequently, we get too many miles of road (and too much sprawl), but the roads suck. The fix-it-first concept is to flip this and make sure we’re maximizing the value of our existing roads before we build new ones.”

The president’s recommended a partnering with the private sector to create jobs through the investment in vitally needed projects. A government investment of $10 billion to create and capitalize an independent National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) could leverage $200 billion of total infrastructure investment from private sector partners and state and local governments.

The GOP is interested only in manufactured scandals that they hope will bring down President Obama and the Democrats, spending and tax cuts, and the elimination of women’s rights. They want to continue hearings on Benghazi, questioning former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; bring Lois Lerner back to question her about the IRS despite her clear intention to invoke the Fifth Amendment; investigate Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about fundraising for Obamacare; press forward on a national anti-abortion law which would be unconstitutional; and otherwise avoid governing the country.

Boehner and the rest of the extremists in Congress don’t consider that the United States is approaching an economy in which goods cannot be easily transported from one city or state to another because the country doesn’t have the bridges and roads and rail to do this.

The collapsed bridge in Washington has cut off the highway into Canada from the western states of California, Oregon, and Washington. This cuts private profits. Failure to invest in roads and bridges would total $3.1 trillion in lost GDP growth in the next eight years, lose 3.5 million jobs, and cost private sector companies over $1 trillion.

Eighteen months ago, Senate Republicans, with the help of Nebraska’s blue dog Ben Nelson and Connecticut’s independent Joe Lieberman, blocked the piece of President Obama’s jobs act, which would have provided for $60 billion in infrastructure spending.

At the same time, House Republicans were determined to pass a bill that would tie new infrastructure funding to federal revenue generated from an expansion of domestic energy production. At that time, 27 percent of the bridges in Ohio, Speaker John Boehner’s home state, were either “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” including 171 bridges that are part of the national highway system.

Almost a year ago, Mark Thoma, economist and Fellow at the American Century Foundation, wrote about how he was stunned by Congress’s inability to fund infrastructure investment because it would meet the GOP goal of a boost to the general economy.

“At a time when interest rates are as low as we are likely to see, when labor and other costs are minimal due to lack of demand during the downturn, and when the need is so high, why aren’t we making a massive investment in infrastructure, which is ultimately an investment in our future? There are many, many public investments we could make where the benefits surely exceed the costs–these are things the private sector won’t do on its own even though they are highly valuable to society–so what are we waiting for?

“If there’s any policy Republicans ought to be able to support, it’s infrastructure spending. It’s inherently a supply-side policy, it helps to promote future economic growth, and it’s an investment with large, positive net benefits. But Republicans see a ‘we won’t build that’ approach to infrastructure spending. . .”

For the past five years, interest rates have been at all-time lows, and construction workers have been largely unemployed. Investing in the infrastructure would have been a bargain. Bridges are not the only piece of infrastructure that are approaching crisis. Highways, wastewater treatment facilities, electricity grid, and tunnels are rapidly deteriorating without maintenance.

In a survey of airports last month, not one U.S. airport was rated in the top 25. Only 17 were in the top 100. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport fell to 30th from 24th a year ago.

The sequester will make this even worse because of the need for senators and representatives to fly on time. The $253 million paying for more prompt airplanes comes from airport maintenance and construction. President Obama said:

“We’re using our seed corn short-term. And the only reason we’re doing it is because right now we’ve got folks who are unwilling to make some simple changes to our tax code, for example, to close loopholes that aren’t adding to our competitiveness and aren’t helping middle-class families.”

More scary statistics here—and these are two years old! The GOP is intent to create a country with a non-government, and they are willing to destroy the concept of “general welfare” in order to do this.

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