When the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state collapsed on May 23, the media immediately seized upon a familiar message: “Our infrastructure is crumbling!” Headlines echoed the outrage Americans feel about the condition of the nation’s roads and bridges. “INFRASTRUCTURE HELL — EVEN BROOKLYN BRIDGE DEFICIENT!” roared a Huffington Post headline, as if a flaw in a beloved American landmark were definitive proof of an impending infrastructure apocalypse.
For many, the disaster was a reminder of the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007, which killed thirteen, injured 145, and ignited debates over our aging infrastructure. The Federal Highway Administration’s own frightening data shows that tens of thousands of bridges are structurally deficient or, like the Skagit River Bridge, “functionally obsolete,” veritable ticking time bombs.
While critics have good reason to be concerned about our roads and bridges, a deeper fear motivates their message. A slew of recent books and articles warn us that our once-mighty infrastructure is failing and that it is a symptom of national decline.
But our infrastructure isn’t really falling apart. The Skagit River Bridge was hit by a tractor-trailer carrying an oversized load. Of the sixty or so bridge and highway overpass failures that have occurred over the past thirty years, in fact, the majority collapsed as the result of natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes; being struck by automobiles, trains, barges, or airplanes; or they failed during construction or repairs. Two days after the Skagit River Bridge accident, a Missouri highway overpass collapsed after two trains collided beneath it. The bridge in question was relatively new and not on the FHA’s list of compromised structures, and the story received little media attention.
American infrastructure needs work, but critics have fabricated a crisis that ultimately has little to do with the kind of work that really needs to be done. Rather than taking a good, hard look at the demands we place on our current infrastructure or making real efforts to come up with bipartisan solutions, we wax nostalgic for what has passed. We look backwards and emphasize the demise of the “good old days,” days when Americans made things that did not fail, when we got big things done. In that narrative, projects like the Eisenhower Interstate System become our greatest accomplishments. Watching them “fall apart” makes us downright apoplectic.
But romanticizing the past makes it all the more difficult to devise good working solutions to our modern transportation needs. The Eisenhower system was built to serve immediate postwar demands, not as the be-all, end-all solution to the nation’s transportation needs. It was an important step, but one framed by the Cold War imperatives of the 1950s. And it was more problematic than we like to admit: From the 1960s through the 1980s, interstate projects destroyed or compromised dozens of inner-city neighborhoods. Along with devastating cuts to housing and jobs programs, interstate highways paved the way for urban decline.
Times have changed. The number of automobiles in the U.S. has more than quadrupled, from about 60 million in 1956 to over 250 million today. And suburban sprawl ensures that American drivers log more miles than ever before. The transportation demands of the new millennium are no longer compatible with a system conceived of and constructed in the middle of the last century.
American infrastructure needs more than a simple facelift. It demands a new vision based in our modern mobility. For years we have built new appendages onto an old framework, and it no longer serves our needs. We have constructed new monuments to pork and political quid pro quo dealmaking at the expense of repairing existing ones. We’ve almost entirely neglected projects that are not car-centered, and we have failed to conceive of mass transit projects as vital parts of national, regional, and local transportation systems.
The failure of projects such Atlanta’s $7.2 billion T-SPLOST initiative last summer, which divided funding between highways used by suburban commuters and the city’s mass transit system (MARTA), is emblematic of our inability to fund innovative solutions to modern problems. We’re not nearly as afraid of crumbling infrastructure as we are uncomfortable with the high costs—political and economic—of building and maintaining it.
The 1956 interstate highway act does have one critical lesson for us: It was a bipartisan effort with significant taxpayer support. If this is one of the hallmarks of effective policymaking of yesteryear, the current “crisis” is a casualty of partisan gridlock. Citizens are paralyzed, too: A Gallup Poll recently showed that two-thirds of Americans object to paying higher gas taxes in order to fund infrastructure improvements, even though seven in ten support infrastructure repair programs that would create much-needed jobs.
Such contradictions are at the heart of our inability to parlay outrage over tragedies like the Skagit River Bridge collapse into a realistic plan to improve and maintain our transportation infrastructure.
A safer, more sophisticated transportation infrastructure will have to combine all of these things: new highway and bridge construction, updating and maintaining what we already have, and a serious commitment to well-integrated mass transit that serves communities marginalized by highway construction alone. But this is expensive, and it requires taxpayers and lawmakers alike to think more broadly about infrastructure as a long-term investment that requires flexible, forward-looking solutions, not stubborn reverence for the past.