It was 1982 when Barry LePatner published his first work on the deteriorating condition of our nation's roads and bridges. Now, nearly three decades and one particularly well-publicized bridge collapse later, LePatner still wonders whether anyone—and most importantly, our elected officials—will do anything about it.
The founder of the New York City-based law firm LePatner & Associates LLP, he is a nationally recognized speaker and author on the topics of infrastructure, engineering, and construction. His most recent work, Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets, examines waste and mismanagement in America's $1 trillion construction industry and lays out a blueprint for reform. It also examines the likely consequences of years of neglect on our nation's aging infrastructure and suggests that the problem is, in fact, far worse than has been disclosed.
LePatner spoke last month with DC VELOCITY Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald about the magnitude of the problem, the perils of inaction, and why it's up to us, as citizens, to insist that politicians make these infrastructure problems a national priority.
Q: The U.S. transportation infrastructure has been aptly described as the circulatory system of our nation's economy. Why has it been so difficult to convince both the public and elected officials of the hazardous condition of our roads and bridges and get them to take action?
A: For several decades now, our nation's policymakers, leaders, and legislators have looked at infrastructure as an area that didn't need to be fully addressed, despite the warnings of state transportation engineers. Politicians do not look at infrastructure issues as "sexy." If they're told it will take $80 million for a bridge to be brought up to standards, they'd still prefer to spend $8 million on minor touch-ups to the bridge and use the rest to open a park so they can stand up in front of a crowd and cut a ribbon. The condition of our bridges, roads, and tunnels is no longer dismissible like that. That is the most important point.
Q: Given the publicity that surrounded the Minneapolis bridge collapse last August, do you think the infrastructure might finally receive the attention it requires?
A: We can only hope that politicians pay heed to what that collapse represents, but I fear that after an initial few months of effort, we're not going to see what has to be done being done.
Let me give you a little background on how bridges are evaluated for safety.When it comes to rating state bridges— the bridges in your state, my state, any other state—they're rated by categories. The two lowest categories are "structurally deficient" and "functionally obsolete." "Structurally deficient" means that the bridge is no longer capable of meeting the demands it was originally designed to handle. "Functionally obsolete" means that the bridge doesn't meet current design standards and if we don't take remedial action, it's only a matter of time before it drops into the "structurally deficient" category. Here's what's so worrisome about the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis: Although it had been identified as having gusset plate design problems, the I-35W bridge was in neither of those categories.
Q: That is troubling.
A: The scary part is that when we talk about potentially dangerous structures, we're not just talking about the hundreds of thousands of bridges that fall into one of those two categories; we are also talking about bridges that aren't even in those categories. State transportation budgets have not allowed for the right kind of inspections, or a sufficient number of inspections, or the spending on the technology to detect incipient problems in those structures.All of this is very scary stuff.
Q: So even though the federal government has identified more than 150,000 bridges as being structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, we have bridges like I-35W that haven't even made the list. In other words, the problem is actually even larger than most of us realize.
A: Remember, politicians just have to make what they believe are the best choices for their constituencies. But if you've been in office for two, five, or 10 years and the bridges in your jurisdiction have been standing for 40 or 50 years, you probably figure it's safe not to allocate the full amount that the local engineers are asking for because those bridges are going to outlast your term in office. It will be someone else's problem. It is a safe thing to do. I have a limited amount of money. I will give you a few bucks. Just keep it going and let's move on to the next issue.
What we now know is that when—not if, but when—the next bridge collapses, some politicians unfortunately are going to have blood on their hands. Since 1989, there have been 500 bridge failures in our nation—that's 500 in the last 20 years. This is not an isolated problem.We have been ignoring the needs of our bridges, roads, and tunnels when it comes to allocating proper maintenance and operational money. It comes home to roost.
Q: You have noted that we allocate roughly $2 billion annually for the maintenance of almost 600,000 bridges. That averages out to just $3,500 per bridge per year. I'm not sure I could even get my house painted for that amount of money!
A: The enormity of the problem that we are facing in terms of addressing this issue is more than most people can grasp.
Q: You have been trying to bring this issue into the spotlight for nearly 30 years. What led you to get involved?
A: I have been looking at this situation for too many years, mostly because I live and work in New York City. I saw our bridges crumbling during the '70s and '80s and into the early '90s, literally crumbling. When I spoke to the city transportation commissioner who was trying to keep them together with spit and glue because we had no money in the city to put toward those bridges, I learned how precarious the situation was and how all of us were literally putting our lives in jeopardy when we used those bridges.
Since the late 1990s when our city, like the rest of the country, had a great surplus of money, New York has spent over $3 billion on its bridges and approaches, and to this day spends another $500 million a year bringing the many bridges in and around New York City up to speed and up to design standards. That is an exemplary situation for heeding the call, because obviously the message got through to our politicians. We are not safe when our families, our friends, and our business colleagues are going across bridges that, according to the experts, are in danger of failing.
Q: It's been noted that some of the current presidential candidates have mentioned infrastructure as an issue they would address should they be elected. I don't recall that ever coming up in a presidential election cycle before, do you?
A: During the Republican debates a few months ago, Ron Paul spent 30 seconds on infrastructure. I got more calls and e-mails from friends saying,"They must be listening to you,"like I'm the only one marching around this country talking about that. I still get e-mails not only from my publisher but from a lot of other people saying, "We heard [Barack] Obama talk about this." Still, I think there's a bit of a difference between talking about it and acting upon it.
In 2005, Congress passed and the president signed a transportation bill that included $300 billion in funding for roads, bridges, tunnels, and general infrastructure projects. At the same time, the administration made it clear that it was disbursing these monies throughout the nation with the understanding that the federal government would no longer have any say or take any role in determining the design of any future roads and bridges or how they are repaired. In other words, it made it strictly an allocation for local politicians. I believe that is a huge mistake that has to be remedied as soon as possible. We cannot afford to have local politicians deciding issues like this. That is why your readers, like every other constituency, should be hounding politicians to let them know that 500 bridge failures since 1989 is unacceptable and that we cannot afford one more bridge collapse in this country.
Q: Is that all we can do?
A: Let me simplify things. The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that it would take $1.6 trillion to bring our nation's infrastructure up to speed. I have reason to believe it would be twice that much, but put that aside. It is mind-boggling.
Let's bring it down to a simple level. No matter where in America I might live, I would want my local politician to answer one simple question: Are any of the bridges in a 50mile radius of my house—bridges that I, my family members, my friends, and my business colleagues travel over every day—on the list of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete structures? If the answer is yes, I would tell that politician, "I am going to be at your doorstep demanding to be told what the engineers have told you it's going to cost [to fix it]. And I'm going to be asking you why you aren't at the state capital or in Congress in Washington, D.C., getting a piece of the action to protect us. Because if you don't do that, what are you doing? Building me another school? I don't care about schools if there's a chance that my kids' school bus could wind up on the bottom of the Mississippi River. I don't want my family going over a bridge that falls into one of those two categories." And, of course, that's only the tip of the iceberg. Then I also have to worry about bridges like the I-35W bridge that haven't even made the list of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges.