Comment: Philip Bates responds to US Infrastructure report

Philip Bates, Buro Happold

Philip Bates, Buro Happold director of strategic transport responds to our recent feature on the US transport infrastructure dilemma…

The real American Dream hasn’t been cars and freeways – it’s not having to pay the correct yearly amount for those freeways. Still, it’s hard to refuse a free dinner today, even if we know someone will have to pick up the bill tomorrow. What’s more, with the boom in shale and the pattern of low density land use across much of the USA, creating a transport dream that doesn’t involve cars and freeways is many years away. What’s more, it seems most Americans are happy with the dream of cars and freeways and wouldn’t want to change it anyway.

However, the problems of a free lunch on freeway funding are starting to become more and more self-evident. Being responsible for a road network (and indeed any economic infrastructure) is like owning a building. You can cut your spending on maintenance and repairs and for many years things seem, at least on the surface, to be fine. Trouble is all of a sudden all the windows have rotted, the roof and water pipes are leaking and the electricity shorts out. Of course, the correct thing to do is look after the building in the good times, so it can ride out a few bad years. Trouble is, when times are good who wants to waste money on mundane things like building maintenance when there are all those parties to go to!

The US is increasingly reaching this point across much of its highway network. Interestingly, while highways in the US may be deteriorating, people seem to be prepared, at least at present, to put up with the temporary inconvenience. In theory that’s fine; it’s their choice, but it brings us neatly to the key issues; bridges are different to general highways. Highways can wear out, deteriorate, pot hole, etc, but they don’t catastrophically fail but bridges do, and when they do, the loss of life and impact on economic performance can be significant.

The short term solutions are many, with lots of tried and tested mechanisms to deliver rehabilitation of sub-standard bridges using both public and private finance and a range of traditional and innovative procurement models. These solutions seem to vary by scale and importance. Large economically critically bridges often opt for direct user tolls to cover costs, with examples including the Bay Bridge in San Francisco which has paid for seismic retrofits with toll increases. Smaller networks tend to be linked into network wide approaches, with the Missouri Safe and Sound Bridge Improvement Program being an example of this network wide approach. Finding the optimal solution for each situation can take time, but rest assured, there is an answer.

However, this is a temporary solution if long term maintenance costs are not addressed. If drivers are not prepared to pay the true and full amount for their highways, whether it be through direct motoring related taxes, indirect taxes or direct scheme related user tolls, the infrastructure won’t be maintained, and it will only be a matter of time before you are in the same situation. Perhaps, ultimately the problem comes back to the unique characteristics of America. It’s a big country, with a history of large population movements away from government interference; unease with taxation; and with a pioneer spirit that is wary of anything that can’t be done very locally. Until the American people takes ownership of their national highway network (and especially those critical bridges) as if it was their own house, this problem won’t go away.

Of course, this isn’t a uniquely American problem; we see the same basic issues replicated in their own local way across the globe. The 2006 Eddington Report to the UK Government on the long term links between transport and economic growth concluded; “Because the UK is already well connected, the key economic challenge is therefore to improve the performance of the existing network”. This advice, was quietly filled away. After all, looking after what you have doesn’t offer the same photo opportunities as opening something new and shiny… So, perhaps the problems of inadequate bridge maintenance are ultimately just one more reflection of our modern political systems.