A deeper look at U.S. infrastructure

A collapsed section of the I35-W bridge in Minneapolis, Minn.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: While recovery crews continue their work at the site of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the blame game has already started.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said today the state would have been responsible for fixing whatever might have been wrong with the bridge. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty responded there was no indication the bridge was in such bad shape. Wherever the finger-pointing does end, news of problems with this country's infrastructure is nothing new.

Rod Diridon runs the Minetta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. Mr. Diridon, welcome to the program.

Rod Diridon: Kai, nice to be with you.

Ryssdal: Governor Pawlenty up in Minnesota said today he was going to order immediate inspections of all the bridges in that state. I imagine governors in other states are thinking along those same lines What are they going to find when they start looking around?

Diridon: That our bridges and other infrastructure are in terrible condition. We built those infrastructure elements 40, 50, 60 years ago as part of the state highway system and have not had the money to maintain that infrastructure while we're also expanding to meet future need. And so we're going to be told again that bridges are in terrible condition. Probably 25, 30 percent of them are on the verge of unsafe in the nation. But that's not new news.

Ryssdal: But Congress every five years passes a transportation bill that runs $2[00 billion], $300 billion. How much of that, if any, goes to infrastructure upkeep and repair?

Diridon: Well, the majority of it does. But remember, when the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of Congress came up with their proposal, it was for $375 billion. And a veto threat from the administration made them compromise that down to $294 billion. Much less than was the minimum projected to be required by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Ryssdal: Is there an amount of money in your mind that we can spend that would fix things in the next 10, 15 years?

Diridon: The need is horrendous. We're talking about hundreds of billions of dollars. It cannot be met with current revenue sources. They have to expand the transportation system because the need is expanding. At the same time, they don't have enough money to maintain the systems. So they have to respond, then, to the political pressure of legislators, who typically would rather expand than maintain because there's a lot more excitement building a new bridge than maintaining an old one.

We have to be talking about new revenue sources, such as gas tax increases, such as carbon taxes, such as congestion pricing that are being used in other places in the world, but we have avoided those in the United States because we are so sensitive to gas tax increases.

Ryssdal: It's worth mentioning that it's not just bridges, as tragic as yesterday's incident was. It's water supplies and tunnels. It's the steam pipe that exploded in New York City a couple of weeks ago.

Diridon: It's the levees that we've recognized as being deficient in New Orleans. All of our infrastructure throughout the United States has been built quite some time ago, and it has not been maintained as it should have been because we don't have the money. And we just can't do it unless additional funding is invested in our infrastructure maintenance and expansion.

Ryssdal: You probably were not surprised by what happened yesterday, as I would wager most transportation professionals weren't. Is your sense that probably most of the rest of us were?

Diridon: Well, yes, I imagine that the people were surprised, because we expect to be protected. When we use infrastructure, we expect it to be safe. And the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has been coming out with their deficient bridge reports for years. And you look at the report, you say, "Gee, our bridges our falling down." And then you file it. Well, they can't be filed unless we want more situations like Minnesota to face us day in and day out.

Ryssdal: Rod Diridon is the executive director of the Minetta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. Mr. Diridon, thanks so much for your time.

Diridon: Nice to be with you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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