Playing 'Mad Libs' on Infrastructure
POLITICO and a few members of Congress raised doubts as to whether America’s infrastructure is truly “crumbling.” The implication from the article: things aren’t as bad as some “politicians and pundits” make them out to be. The article is an interesting juxtaposition given this piece by Ashley Halsey of the Washington Post describing that the Capital Beltway is rotting from the core outwards. The road looks OK, but it is degrading – fast – in ways we cannot always see.
Why do transportation advocates talk about “crumbling” infrastructure to the press, and in our handouts and speeches? Because it is a shorthand way to convey the urgency and the importance of continued investment in maintaining, modernizing, and expanding our roads and bridges, public transportation including buses and trains, airports and air traffic control, freight railroads, ports, coastal and inland waterways, and the locks, dams, channels and harbors in them.
The author of the POLITICO piece – with its “nothing to see, so nothing to worry about” tone – unintentionally provided an important reminder that transportation advocates need to do a better job educating Americans about the impact of infrastructure. As the POLITICO piece points out, not all roads are “crumbling,” but many are. There are lots of other good words to add to the infrastructure lexicon:
Overburdened: definition from Merriam-Webster.com: to fill or load to excess, from “over” meaning so as to exceed or surpass; excessive; or to an excessive degree, and “burden,” which is something that is carried: load; the capacity for carrying cargo.
The symptoms: congestion, crowding, and delays.
The result: lost time, lost money, missed or forgone opportunities. That’s true on the roads, on transit systems, in our skies, and at our ports.
Infrastructure that is outdated (having passed the time of its use or usefulness, see also antiquated, superannuated) and unable to support 21st century demands.
The symptoms: “posted” bridges – only cars and trucks of a certain weight can use them.
The result: detours, delays, and closed trade lanes.
Here’s another view of outdated from Jeff Smisek, president and CEO of United Airlines. At the Chamber’s Aviation Summit last week he called the U.S. air traffic control system the world’s safest system, “built on the finest World War II technology.”
And beyond crumbling (to fall into small pieces, to break down completely), infrastructure is atrophying (a wasting away or progressive decline), decaying (to decline from a sound or prosperous condition; to fall into ruin), worsening (to make worse; worse: of more inferior quality, value or condition; more unfavorable, difficult, unpleasant, or painful, more faulty, unsuitable, or incorrect, less skillful or efficient), or dangerous (able or likely to inflict injury or harm).
I’ve stood on locks where concrete has simply fallen off into the river. To make them temporarily safer, the Army Corps has drilled rods to hold the wall of the lock together and placed metal plates so that people can walk on the lock just to do their jobs. I’ve looked up at bridges with “diapers” placed to keep people and vehicles safe from falling debris. I’ve seen cracks in the walls and sagging ceilings of old airports, and I’ve ridden the nation’s oldest transit systems—Boston, New York, Chicago—and seen with my own eyes the deterioration of tracks and trestles, and the ragged condition of trains and buses.
But, there are other definitions to keep in mind:
Transportation infrastructure is an asset (an item of value owned) that has to be operated and managed (to cause to function, to put or keep in operation; to handle or direct with a degree of skill).
These assets require ongoing maintenance (the upkeep of property or equipment) and repair (to restore to a good or healthy state). It has a life after initial construction. Like a house or a car, you don’t buy it or build it and not plan and budget for those expenses.
In addition, this nation, including local, state, and federal governments and the private sector, must rebuild (to make extensive repairs to, see also reconstruct; to restore to a previous state; to make extensive changes in, see also remodel) or replace (to take the place of especially as a substitute or successor) systems to accommodate increased global competition, new economic activity and population growth.
The system has to modernize (to make modern, see also update, contemporize, or related words redesign, redevelop, redo, reengineer, remake, revamp, revise…) and expand (to increase the extent, number, volume or scope of).
Congress’ passage of “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” (MAP-21), which reauthorized surface transportation legislation and maintained funding levels for highways and transit last year was a step in the right direction. So was the reauthorization of the nation’s aviation programs and policies, but there is still more to do.
Why did the Charlotte, NC, Chamber fight hard to build light rail? Because Charlotte needs to grow its economy and create jobs while maintaining and improving the quality of life of its citizens.
Why did Caterpillar choose to locate a new, $200 million manufacturing plant in Georgia that will sustain 1400 jobs? In part, because of proximity to major ports that could be serviced by new Post Panamax ships—the same ports that now need to increase both their harbor depths and the capacity on the roads and rails connecting those ports with the rest of the nation.
Why do we need Next Generation Air Traffic Control? To increase the capacity of our airspace, especially at hubs, and to increase safety and decrease emissions.
Why do the locks and dams on our inland waterways need reconstruction? To keep prices of U.S. commodities including soybeans, corn, and wheat lower than those from Brazil and other international competitors.
Why do we need to deploy digital technologies? Because sensors embedded on bridges can give us a more accurate picture of conditions and reduce the price tag for infrastructure investment. Because GPS-based air traffic control will mean less time sitting on the ground and holding in the air, translating to money saved, among other benefits. Because innovative technologies like cameras, sensors, and control centers, help DOTs manage traffic, deploy emergency vehicles, and reduce congestion.
The word “crumbling” may seem like an exaggeration to some and I’ll acknowledge the argument that even with greater investment there will always be more to do. But until someone figures out a better word to visualize the need to invest in infrastructure and get the attention of the public, press, pundits, and politicians, “crumbling” will just have to do.