Ask someone if there’s a problem with American infrastructure and there’s a good chance he’ll point at the nearest bridge.
It needn’t be a grand structure. As a generation of Wharton alumni will confirm, crossing the Schuylkill by way of the modest South Street overpass was a risky proposition until just a few years ago. In its dying days, the bridge was closed to heavy vehicles but open to daredevil and presumably light-footed Penn students. The long-deferred move to replace the 1923 bascule bridge began in 2008, which happened to coincide with city engineers’ declaration it would not survive another winter.
On a more epic scale, New Yorkers have the Tappan Zee. A January feature about the bridge in New York magazine was titled simply “Falling Down.” It’s not clear the author needed to go any further, as his title so effectively captured the public perception of the bridge’s condition.
There’s an abundance of reporting on the Tap’s imminent collapse, ranging from the dismissive to the emphatic. I can’t imagine it will collapse underfoot, but it’s hard to sift through the noise. For some, crossing the Tappan Zee is a three-mile leap of faith.
A new Tap is on its way as a measure of necessity. New bridges don’t come to New York City with any frequency. The last of the great East River bridges was completed more than a century ago, when the combined population of Brooklyn and Queens was a small fraction of its current levels. At least in relative terms, the West Side can boast its newness. The Holland Tunnel was completed 85 years ago, but the south tube of the Lincoln opened just a moment ago, in 1957.
If it were not for the Second Avenue subway (which has been in various stages of planning for 80-odd years) and the groundbreaking at Moynihan Station (a relatively young idea, dating back to the early 1990s), you might think the era of elective infrastructure had ended.
At least where bridges are concerned, the numbers seem to back up casual observation. Following New York magazine’s lead, the Council of State Governments titled its national report “Falling Bridges.” How does New York fare against its peers? More than 10 percent of bridges in New York State were deemed structurally deficient. More than 20 percent are functionally obsolete.
It’s not that we’ve lost our taste for building big. The knee-jerk answer is that in the order of immediate priorities, public cash and political will have lent themselves to other things. It’s hard to conceive of Washington agreeing to build the interstate highway system again.
At least until our latest budgetary turns, infrastructure spending as a share of GDP hasn’t fallen as much as you’d guess, though we may be losing ground in terms of the productivity of that spending. Nor does our infrastructure rank that poorly. The World Economic Forum places us 14th in the world in infrastructure. Uncork the champagne: that’s better than our 17th-place showing on the OECD’s ranking of high schoolers’ literacy in science.
The difficult thing to concede is that it’s not just an issue of money. As we do in our school system, we invest a lot. And like our school system, we’re not getting the returns we expect and need.
What else might be going wrong? In one example, the president last week gave the green light to a new bridge that will span the Detroit River to Canada. The New International Trade Crossing has been held up for years, costing jobs and economic productivity on a scale that matters far afield from Michigan—for the Big Three automakers in particular. The delays aren’t about funding for the project. Nor does it carry the environmental implications of the Keystone XL pipeline. Instead, the private owner of the sole means of crossing today has mounted an extraordinary anti-competitive challenge.
How do we hinder ourselves? In the last election, Michigan voters were asked to amend their constitution to protect the Ambassador Bridge monopoly. Four out of 10 voted to do just that. More than $30 million was spent on a bid to protect exclusive control of one the country’s most vital international trade crossings. The amendment failed, but the incumbent bridge owner has vowed to press forward with new legal challenges. In the interim, the bridge is important enough that Canada has offered to cover every dollar of Michigan’s $550 million contribution. Our readiness to throw that offer back across the border speaks for itself.
Sam Chandan, Ph.D., is president and chief economist of Chandan Economics and an adjunct professor at the Wharton School.