If you’re one of the thousands of public works employees whose holidays were ruined by tornadoes and flooding, my heart goes out to you. I hope you’re not related to or friends with anyone who was injured or died; and that your home, family, and community are recovering as well as can be expected. There’s nothing like a disaster to put things into proper perspective.

Even before the bad weather, experts predicted greater public construction this year thanks to the five-year surface transportation package President Obama signed in December. Last year, construction spending rose to its highest level since 2008. Economic forecasters predict another 6% increase this year.

But when you analyze the numbers, you realize that infrastructure is where it’s always been: stagnant. Public construction accounts for one-third of all construction but, given our priorities, I’m amazed it’s that much.

As a nation, we value our home — for most of us, the largest personal investment in our lifetime — much more than the systems that make or break the value of that investment.

Although housing starts are lower than average, we spend about 10% more on new homes and remodeling projects every year. Hotel, office building, restaurant, and retail construction is also experiencing double-digit growth. Hospital and other health care facility owners are holding the line on spending as they grapple with fundamental compensation and delivery changes, but that’s bound to change as the baby boomer generation crests.

Now let’s look at public sector growth expectations for the year. Virtually all the activity is by state and local governments.

  • Highways and streets: 2%
  • Power: 3%
  • Water: 3%
  • Schools: 4%
  • Sewage and waste disposal: 4%
  • Conservation and development: 5%
  • Airports, railways, and other transportation: 9%

The growth rate of amusement parks and sports facilities is outpacing public works! It’s ironic when you think about it. People complain about a new stormwater “tax;” sewer, water, garbage, and toll road rate increases. They spend hard-earned money on bottled water — an absolutely unnecessary expense — but vote down a proposed sales tax that would give them smoother roads, well-groomed rights of way, and nicer public gathering places.

What’s harder to sell: a nice home in a crappy neighborhood, or a crappy home in a nice neighborhood?

What is wrong with us?!

On that note, happy new year. I promise to be cheerier next month. In the meantime, stay safe.