Our Sponsors

Search this Site
Hidden Stuff
« Follow up on Stillwater Bridge | Main | Friday News Digest »

Dig, baby, dig

Our systems for funding new infrastructure are stuck in the 1950's. Our systems for funding maintenance of existing infrastructure are not serious. Combined, these approaches create outcomes that can't be justified by people considering themselves rational, let alone great.

Transportation for America has released a report on the state of bridges in the United States. It should be eye-opening for anyone even mildly engaged in the debate over the future of America's infrastructure. Titled "The Fix We're In For: The State of Our Bridges", the report details, in a state-by-state, county-by-county breakdown, exactly where we stand. 

For example, in my home state of Minnesota, we have 1,149 bridges that have been determined to be structurally deficient, meaning they require significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement. According to Transportation for America, the cost to address all 1,149 bridges is $500 million. But we're not going to focus on this sad fact; others have that covered just fine. Today we're going to look again at the Old Economy Project that Refuses to Die, also commonly called the St. Croix Bridge.

The St. Croix bridge is a proposed $670 million crossing of the St. Croix, a river forming the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The city of Stillwater has long advocated for the new bridge as a way to address their congestion problem (the current bridge, which is deficient, runs right through town), to the point where their council gave money to a group promoting the bridge, a contribution which turned out to be illegal. The nearest high-capacity bridge is eight miles away to the south. 

The Stillwater Bridge (B) crosses the St. Croix river about eight miles north of the I-94 bridge near Hudson (A).

Let's stipulate for the sake of this conversation that the new St. Croix bridge is a worthy project (it's not, but let's pretend that it is). At a time when Americans are being forced to make some really difficult financial decisions, particularly about infrastructure spending, the reason why this project is likely to proceed while 1,100+ of our deficient bridges receive little funding is important to understand. Understanding that reason will illuminate why we are in such a dire financial situation, why our infrastructure is failing and why nothing we are likely to do will make the problem better.

The St. Croix bridge is a very expensive project. It is projected to cost more than the estimate for fixing ALL of the 1,149 structurally deficient bridges in Minnesota.

Without knowing the numbers, it would be fair to assume that the St. Croix bridge is really critical in terms of traffic volume. Not so. The bridge is projected to carry 16,000 vehicles per day. For comparision, Minnesota's 1,149 structurally deficient bridges carry a combined 2.4 million vehicles per day.

This seems insane, and it is. Why would a state full of rational people spend $670 million on one bridge to carry 16,000 cars when we already have 1,149 bridges carrying over 2.4 million cars that are in a state of critical disrepair? Why would we not spend the money first on maintaining the bridges that we have? What business do we have adding more bridges to the inventory when we do not have the resources to maintain our existing ones?

The answer is so simple and it is the key to understanding why our national infrastructure systems are in such miserable shape.

We can get money from Washington to build new infrastructure, but it is really difficult -- if not impossible -- to get money from Washington to maintain existing infrastructure.

Put simply, maintenance is a local issue. Building new -- expansion -- is something we fund out of Washington D.C. through any number of programs or appropriations. But the catch is always that the drudgery of maintenance falls lower on the government food chain. In other words, it is up to Minnesota to maintain its bridges. There is some federal money there that it can go after, but largely the existing bridges are the states's financial responsibility. The fact that there are 1,149 bridges in critical disrepair points out that this system is not working real well.

Minnesota can say no to the St. Croix bridge money, but in doing so it will not receive an equivalent amount of money that it can use to maintain its existing bridges. If Minnesota says no, the St. Croix bridge money will just go to some other state. Neither the congestion problem in Stillwater nor the problem of the 1,149 deficient bridges will be solved. A pragmatic local politician, understanding that a new bridge solves Stillwater's problems and won't create any significant liabilities for the state for 50 years or more, makes a rational decision and supports the project. Only a handful of people reading this blog right now will be around to bear the financial burden of fixing this bridge when it someday becomes deficient.

Think that through for a second and put yourself in the place of the person fifty years from now. There will be a deficient bridge in Stillwater that will then be in need of maintenance. It will serve only a small number of cars, but the cost will be astronomical -- far more than can be afforded or that can be justified by the traffic volume. Do our grandchildren and great grandchildren put up the money to fix this bridge or do they just ignore the problem?

Well, if they follow in our footsteps, they will ignore the problem. Today we have 1,149 bridges just in Minnesota that were built generations ago that are now ours to maintain. We're not maintaining them.

And why would we? I don't ask that lightly, but simply point out that few of these bridges are high-return investments. The same thought process that is pushing the St. Croix bridge project forward was used to justify all of these other investments. We've not created any systems to ensure that these investment could be financially justified or to capture any value out of them once they were built. With the gas tax, our only incentive at the federal level is to encourage people to use more gas. Building more bridges whenever there was a congestion problem, regardless of whether or not it could be financially justified, responded to this incentive perfectly.

We're two generations into this folly. Look around and see what we've created. We have failing infrastructure everywhere. The cost to maintain it all far outstrips our ability to pay, let alone any amount we could justify spending based on the value created. We've put ourselves into enormous debt not only in government but especially at the household level just trying to keep this system going. So what do we do now?

Apparently, at least for the time being, we just keep digging the hole deeper. Dig, baby, dig.


Related Reading


[Note correction: I made a mistake and took a number from the wrong column for the amount of traffic on Minnesota's structurally deficient bridges. The correct number as reported by Transportation for America is 2,436,031. The post now reflects the correct number. My apologies for that mistake. -Chuck Marohn]

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (8)

Question: Are those just the structurally deficient bridges or did the Transportation for America authors lump together structurally deficient and functionally obsolete? Several studies have done so, and for our purposes, the two must be separated: structurally deficient means the bridge is quite literally falling apart, whereas functionally obsolete means the bridge is carrying more traffic than it was designed and built for--that is, it is exceeding design expectations. The latter is pure Old Economy; the former is the far more serious issue.

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

" when we already have 1,154 bridges carrying over 15 million cars that are in a state of critical disrepair?"

"structurally deficient" <> "critical disrepair"

For a quick read on what "structurally deficient" actually means:

"A Structurally Deficient Bridge, as defined by bridge engineers, indicates that the bridge is in need of maintenance"

"We can get money from Washington to build new infrastructure, but it is really difficult -- if not impossible -- to get money from Washington to maintain existing infrastructure."

That is inaccurate. The decisions about how most federal gas tax money is spent are made locally. Its not only not difficult to get, by law its allocated to the state every year. Like many state highway engineering departments, MNDOT chooses to spend most of it on new construction.

The Stillwater bridge, like the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere", is really an earmark of federal gas tax funds that aren't allocated to the states. Local officials at MNDOT have made this a priority for the Minnesota congressional delegation. I haven't followed the details of the politics of the Stillwater Bridge, but the fact that it serves two states makes it likely it is also getting political weight from the Wisconsin delegation. In other words, while its true the money is allocated federally, the allocation of the political clout to get that federal money is a local decision.

But there is a good reason for federal funding of interstate highway system. There are benefits to those highways through places like South Dakota and Montana that go well beyond just the residents of those states. Expecting that they would pay for their construction and maintenance is unreasonable. This is another of those burden and benefit issues that you choose to ignore.

The real question is how did we afford to build all this infrastructure that is now wearing out? And why a larger and wealthier population "can't afford" to maintain, much less replace it.

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

The City of Stillwater claims that congestion is a problem. They are right in the sense that people drive slower through town. However, I challenge the idea that its a bad thing. The downtown core of Stillwater, which is comprised of mainly small, local businesses, gets 10,000 + cars slowly creeping by. There are benefits to this:

- As a pedestrian, traffic moves slow enough that walking across the street is easy
- The next traffic, at a slow speed, adds a valued visibility to local shops
- The slow traffic flow acts as a disincentive for people to commute epic distances to work
- Slow traffic creates an environment where people may stop in Stillwater, or before, and wait a a coffee shop, etc, in order to wait for traffic to slow down.

Having 10,000 less cars through town might be bad for business. Plus, locals are very aware of the bottleneck, and take side streets to avoid it. The only people this will truly be benfiting will be those who choose to commute to the Twin Cities metro from very, very far distances.

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel


Where is your blog? I'm sure it is widely read.

People at MNDOT do not support this project. The politicians with the purse strings do. Projects like this happen because it is always more fun and rewarding for those in power to build the Bachmann bridge than to fix the Oberstar Highway.

If we were to pay for all of this stuff with gas tax it would need to go up more than $2 per gallon. We overbuilt. That's how it happened, Ross. You and Krugman/Bachmann can pretend otherwise, but you are wrong.


October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohnT

As I understand it, our gas taxes at the federal level haven't been raised since something like 1993 which with inflation makes the funding of present infrastructure woefully inadequate (a 1993 dollar is probably worth something like .40 today). We're not even close to being able to acknowledge the pickle we're in. To do so would be to commit heresy in questioning the "Growth" orthodoxy. The heretic is dismissed out of hand as being a cook. The emperor's clothes are just fine.

To Ross, I would only ask the question - "are we really richer"? If I go to the bank and get a 100,000K loan, am I really richer? I think the answer to this question might go some distance in answering your "why?" question. I don't think we're richer. I don't think we've been "richer" since the beginning of our debtor status in 1980. Mr. Marohn's Curbside Chat pdf delved into this when analyzing the variance between funding paradigms of the early days of the highway expansion program (savings and investment) and today's (debt financing).

I believe the problem is a Gordian Knot of complexity and is unsolvable internally. The problem will be solved for us. It won't be pretty and it won't be comfortable. History and reality is unconcerned with our needs, hopes and desires.

Have a nice day. :)

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMWBrown

"I don't think we're richer"

Well, I was alive in the 1950's. People were making a lot less money, they owned fewer cars, they spent more of their budget on food and shelter, they had to cook their own food, they ate out a lot less, even middle class kids wore patched clothes and hand-me-downs. The idea that we aren't richer is absurd by any measure.

The biggest problem with the gas tax is that we are getting much better mileage and the amount of gas used is much lower compared to the road space required. But the gas tax would still cover a lot more maintenance if it wasn't being spent to add capacity so that people can commute long distances during rush hours in their individual car. The problem isn't really that we lack the money, its that we are choosing to spend it on fancier cars and road capacity to use them.

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

@Nathaniel brings up a good point in that optimizing for throughput of cars could lead to a whole host of negative consequences for the rest of the city.

Take, for example, my town of Fergus Falls, which is currently in the midst of building a bridge over the Otter Tail River to the tune of $15 million. There are five crossings of the river in our downtown area, and two farther east, but nothing to the west of downtown until I-94. The particular site where they chose to build the bridge has been eyed for some time now, and apparently the financial pieces finally fell into place to allow for construction of this bridge to commence.

Here's a map of the crossing, which is highlighted in red. The closest crossing to this skirts the west edge of our downtown (blue area), and the typical path that someone from that side of town would take is shown as a blue line. The red area denotes the suburban commercial development area that has been growing for the past 30 years or so.

One can argue that this fills in a gap in our transportation network, but up until now it seems that our town has survived without it. Our downtown, at least compared to other cities of comparable size in the area, is doing well -- most of the storefronts are occupied, there's a healthy residential population above the ground floor shops, there's no missing teeth along Lincoln Avenue, our main drag, and we've even managed to retain a full-service grocery store in the middle of it all, despite the presence of a larger grocer on the old edge of town and a Super Walmart by the interstate. I bet the daily traffic that passes through downtown as a result of our particular configuration of roads has something to do with that.

When you look at what this bridge connects, one wouldn't be faulted for assuming that it's just been built to let the southwestern suburban fringe get to Fleet Farm and Target five minutes faster. The official line is that it will lessen the truck traffic from our "main" exit off of the interstate, #54, and allow a more straightforward connection to the industrial park on the north side of town, but I think that's an explanation in search of a problem. Coming off of exit 54 is a four-lane divided highway, which if it wasn't built to accomodate trucks, would be overkill for the amount of traffic it regularly receives.

While the city is putting out no general fund money to pay for the bridge -- it's funded by transfer payments from the federal and state levels -- it's going to be put on the county and city's shoulders to maintain the bridge, which is a perfect example of the "benefit now, pay later" approach that Chuck and Co. regularly warn about.

Finances aside, I worry about what kind of growth example this will set. By building this bridge, we're just upping the ante on the wager that we can continue to build out a system where happy motoring is the only goal.

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJake Krohn

To Ross Williams - I'm not sure anecdote should suffice for hard numbers. I think I can come up with similar stories to counter yours - not that it will do much good. My father who grew up in the 50's went to a prestigious boarding school in Pennsylvania, had a "yard man" and housekeeper. They were solidly upper-middle class. Most of their neighbors in their bedroom community lived similar lives. Many people went out for dinner, cocktails and shows. I don't think they patched their children's clothes (I know my grandmother probably didn't but she did know how to sew). Note - this story means NOTHING. What would mean something would be statistics illustrating some hard numbers. I bet on the aggregate or mean, the country IS richer. I'll also bet my last sawbuck that the distribution is much worse. That my posit is "absurd by any measure" might be the case - however, you provided no "measure", merely memory.

To Jake Krohn - well, I think you've pretty much hit the nail on the head. If I've read Chuck's piece, and others correctly, there is no "profit" in maintenance, since the municipality has to pay for it rather than new construction which comes from someone else. Maybe the bridge connects a gap in the transportation network, or maybe its being built to shift the pattern away from declining bridges that will be allowed to continue to deteriorate. Sort of "we can prevent having to lay out our own money if we can keep building new bridges." Of course, I just thought, why not demolish old bridges for new ones? Hmmm. I wish I had more of substance to contribute. I can see how this topic must be difficult to present to folks without a dual degree in finance and civil engineering. Have a groovy weekend.

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMWBrown
Comments for this entry have been disabled. Additional comments may not be added to this entry at this time.