My Google Alert just sent me this piece from the Seattle Times written by Kathy J. Caldwell, president elect for ASCE, responding to Neal Peirce's column in the Washington Post. Caldwell indicates that we at Strong Towns made "misstatements" in that we got the "purpose of the study wrong". Here is what she wrote:

Neal Peirce chose to trumpet the misstatements made in the “Strong Towns” blog about American Society of Civil Engineer’s “failure to act” report instead of looking into the report’s intent himself [“Prioritizing the nation’s infrastructure investments,”, Aug. 20].

If he had, it would have been clear that the study’s purpose was to show the expected negative effects of America’s current level of investment in surface-transportation systems, not prescribe ways for infrastructure dollars to be spent.

My critique of the ASCE report was that it was a ridiculous piece of propaganda that (1) intentionally distorted the numbers by projecting the "negative effects" cumulatively over 30 years and the needed "investments" in single year increments, and by doing so it (2) actually didn't recognize the fact that the "investments" had a far greater cost than the "negative effects" and thus (3) failed to provide any relevant information to decision-makers and policy advocates. 

My critique was also of the polticians, media and bloggers who blindly parroted the ASCE narrative in a call for more spending.

While it is true that the ASCE report does not, as Caldwell indicated, "prescribe ways for infrastructure dollars to be spent" in that it does not recommend specific projects or appropriation methods, it pretty clearly follows the bad-things-will-happen-unless-we-spend-more-money approach.

I urge everyone here to read the press release from ASCE and the report and see for themselves. In fact, here are the headings from the different sections of the press release. Read these and ask yourself if ASCE is playing the role of truth-seeker or propagandist.

  • American businesses and workers will suffer
  • Families will have a lower standard of living
  • Modest investment needed

In fact, just read the heading of their press release:

American Society of Civil Engineers releases first-ever report on how U.S. economy and family budgets will fare if America fails to fund surface transportation improvements

Caldwell and ASCE are adding insult to injury if they are going to try and say now that their intent was solely to point out the problem but had no suggestion as to what the policy response should be. Clearly, the response for a country that "fails to fund" is to fund, is it not? What are they trying to suggest by saying that only "modest investments" are needed to forestall "suffering" and a "lower standard of living"? Why include the "modest investments" at all if their only intention was to point out the problem?

The reality is, we've been pointing out this same problem for years: The United States has more infrastructure than we have the money to maintain. And as ASCE's report so vividly demonstrates, the public's return-on-investment for this system is horrendous. What we have built is simply not productive enough -- it does not generate enough prosperity -- to sustain itself.

Where we break from the propaganda machine at ASCE is in pointing out that "modest investments" are needed to keep this Ponzi scheme going. Overlooking the fact that the cost of the so-called "modest investments" exceed the cost of the estimated "suffering", Strong Towns is not calling for "modest investments", implied or otherwise. We're calling for an entirely different approach.

In fact, Kathy J. Caldwell provides a perfect analogy for a different approach in a statement she makes on her website. In response to a question about ASCE's focus for the year ahead, she states:

Many of our members are suffering from the impacts of the current recession, which impacts ASCE as an organization.  Consequently, our members rightfully expect ASCE to make similar tough financial, operating, and management decisions.  We must systematically review every element of the Society, going beyond the work of the Program Committee, which looks at only 10% of our overall budget.  A benefit-versus-cost analysis must be performed to identify areas of the Society that are underperforming or unproductive and, therefore, should be corrected or suspended.  We need to trim the trees and weed the garden, without destroying the landscape. 

Hopefully Caldwell will apply her organizational philosophy to the conclusions contained in the next ASCE report instead of promoting -- implied or otherwise -- a mindless continuation of the status quo.