Repairs Vital for Aging U.S. Infrastructure

More than 75,000 bridges nationwide are rated structurally deficient, which doesn't mean they are in danger of collapsing. Fixing them would cost billions. Joel Schwieterman, professor of public services management at DePaul University, speaks with Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In the wake of this week's bridge collapse, federal officials are now encouraging all states to inspect their bridges. It's reported that more than 75,000 bridges across the country are now rated structurally deficient, which doesn't mean they're in danger of collapsing but they do need fixing. And those repairs would cost billions and billions of dollars.

Joe Schwieterman joins us now. He's a professor of public service management to DePaul University in Chicago. He joins us now from the studios of WMEH Bangor, Maine.

Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor JOSEPH SCHWIETERMAN (Public Service Management, DePaul University, Chicago): Good day.

SIMON: Where would all this money come from?

Prof. SCHWIETERMAN: Well, the timing of this bridge collapse is rather ironic, remarkable given that in Washington there's major discussions on Capitol Hill about what to do with the Highway Trust Fund and it's going to be bankrupt in a couple of years. And so there's a lot of hand waving about the need for basic infrastructure money. And, unfortunately, it has taken an event like this, I think, really to bring that issue out to the fray.

SIMON: Where was the money in the Highway Trust Fund come from?

Prof. SCHWIETERMAN: Well, the good news is our vehicles are getting more fuel-efficient, you know. Gradually, we're seeing less fuel consumption per mile traveled. But that means less money in the federal coffers. And motorists pay about 18 cents a gallon in federal money for - to maintain the roads, what the federal government disseminates to the states.

And that formula has worked really well until a few years ago. We started seeing major escalation highway cost. And then all these bridges has been so heavily publicized or reaching the end of their useful lives all at once. It's really quite an overwhelming problem.

SIMON: Practically speaking, which is to say politically speaking, is it easier to get new money for - to build roads and bridges that relieve traffic congestion than it is to get money for just repairing what's there?

Prof. SCHWIETERMAN: Well, sadly, routine repairs have not been the problem. It's been major capital rehabilitation. And what we're seeing is the repair cycle tends to be a 68-year project. So it's kind of beyond the typical planning horizon9ph) of most politicians so it tends not to be very sexy from a campaign standpoint.

And I think the pressure most politicians are feeling are much more acute on the congestion side. People are demanding congestion relief and that is often kind of at odds with rehabilitating some of these old bridges because we're finding that they're demanding that repairs be done without closing the bridge, which often means multi-year(ph), a much more expensive process. So the two are really very much at odds.

SIMON: Are we right, in the general public, to put together a lot of the events we've seen over the past couple of years - electrical grids burning out in the northeast, manhole covers popping up in Manhattan, and now, this bridge collapse - as a sign that a lot of the infrastructure built in the 1960s are just wearing out?

Prof. SCHWIETERMAN: That's an unfortunate reality. And the fact is we were given a tremendous advantage by the aggressive planning in the '50s and '60s. And we started the road on that to the '70s and '80s and '90s. You know, but now the federal agenda is so crowded. I mean, new entitlements, health care and so forth, have pushed that kind of spending into a secondary status.

And states are now feeling a need to kind of throw the long vault(ph), but the view with this since money doesn't seem to be there, seeing a lot of privatization efforts, leasing out of tollways. We're seeing that they got to really think outside the box to fix this.

SIMON: With all the finger-pointing going on, ultimately, who's responsible for bridge inspection, making sure that an infrastructure is sound, well-maintained, safe to travel?

Prof. SCHWIETERMAN: Well, that's all turned over to the state. The federal government is effectively a money conduit that passes money on to the various state capitals. That's what we saw this week. I think a lot of the efforts had a feel-good quality standing up, insisting on every bridge should be inspected, should be done but certainly I have been more impressed to see some sign of a commitment to embark on a very long, decade-long task of rehabilitating our aging highways.

SIMON: Joe Schwieterman, professor of public service management at DePaul University. Thanks very much.

Prof. SCHWIETERMAN: Well, thank you.

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