It's not as much as we'd like, and nowhere near what's needed, but the American people have seen fit to acknowledge infrastructure's role in getting the nation back on its feet. And that's a step in the right direction.
Exactly how much of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is for public works depends on your definition of “infrastructure.” The American Society of Civil Engineers says it's $72 billion; the Associated General Contractors of America says $135 billion. Either way, something's better than nothing.
This ain't 1956, when we were a nation of bright-eyed optimists flexing our manufacturing muscle after World War II. We didn't think twice about committing $25 billion to build the roads and bridges over which raw materials would travel to become finished goods for us eager consumers. We wanted those televisions and dishwashers and toys and cars so much we agreed to tax ourselves to pay for construction.
What a beautifully straightforward proposition that was! Today, we're much more complicated, our basic requirements so much greater.
We want proof that government will invest our hard-earned money more wisely than we have. We want growth that doesn't threaten the environment, and we want construction to begin as soon as possible. We want to buy American, and we want the lowest-cost option. In our attempt to meet these competing demands, I'm afraid this funding will bypass operations that need it most.
If you're lucky, your metropolitan planning organization asked for a list of projects as the law made its way through Congress. Or, like one reader who calls it “dumb luck,” you just happen to have a multimillion-dollar interchange project that had been designed; for which you'd gotten right of way, environmental, and funding approval; and were about to go to bid on anyway. You can submit it for consideration and start making your way down the list of less-involved work that can quickly be specified and put out for bid. But if you didn't have the resources to have major improvements or new construction ready to go, this law doesn't provide them. (See the results of our latest quick-poll)
The law will drive basic repair and rehabilitation, but it won't support the innovative long-term infrastructure solutions our country desperately needs. Sure, that's not its goal; and Lord knows there are plenty of assets that need some tender loving care. This unexpected largesse is a drop in the bucket.
Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers grades our infrastructure, and every four years it gets a “D.” The most recent report card was released in January. I'm eager to see how this infusion of federal monies and the next highway bill affect grades in 2013.
Let the games begin.
Editor in Chief