'A Patch and Pray Mentality' Drives America's Transportation Infrastructure

PT Speaks with American Society of Civil Engineers Executive Director Pat Natale

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How solid is America’s network of roads, levees, bridges and water storage? Were the tragedies in New Orleans and Minneapolis a sign of things to come? To answer these questions and to shed some light on America’s Infrastructure Report Card, PT spoke with ASCE Executive Director Pat Natale.

PT: At a time of general economic growth, why is America facing safety concerns regarding our nation’s infrastructure?

Pat Natale: Our belief is that our country is facing a lot of these issues because we haven’t been putting enough resources into maintenance, and it’s impacting our quality of life. We allow ourselves to sit in traffic longer, put up with periodic system failures like blackouts and other things.

The public and the media have these short reactions that never lead to anything. Roads, drinking water systems and dams are simply too old. If we don’t maintain them—this is key—we’re going to be in serious trouble. For far too long, we’ve been borrowing money at the last minute or diverting it to other issues.

Our belief is that we’re dealing with a “patch and pray” mentality. We’ve under-funded a number of key issues. The federal government recently approved a new highway project, but the problem was that it was under-funded. It was a case of a “patch and pray” strategy—the National Infrastructure Improvement Act. We need a better strategy; a better game plan.

PT: What are some of the most pressing infrastructure projects that are not being addressed quickly enough, or aren't addressed at all, in the country?

Pat Natalie: Several things come to mind. In Nevada, specifically Southern Nevada, we’re looking at tremendous growth, and wondering: are they investing enough to keep up with growth?

Sacramento has a huge number of levees. Are they keeping up? St. Louis has levees people don’t really think about. Do we look at the impact of a natural disaster, or a man-made disaster, or neglect in maintenance?

DC has an old water system, so old that lead got into the water system as the pipes aged because of the way they were put together. We have modern, efficient piping systems, but the problem is that many of them are leaking. Water is a valuable resource and we’re wasting it.

27% of our bridges are obsolete or functionally deficient. If you don’t take action on it, is that a concern? We don’t know if there were weather conditions, aging, salting, other factors that contributed to their deterioration. The question is: were there repairs going on?

PT: What should the public know about the seriousness of a failing grade for a project mentioned in your Infrastructure Report Cards?

Pat Natale: How would they feel if their son or daughter came home with a grade like that? We’re a great and prosperous nation, and we deserve at least a passing grade. To settle for Cs and Ds on drinking water, I think that’s unacceptable. That’s a base level of service, and we expect to be safe, at a reasonable cost. What we’re seeing is that people are accepting mediocre or worst—the public needs to speak up. Most of the public does do that, but the public generally doesn’t understand that it’s an ongoing effort.

PT: The levees in New Orleans; the bridge collapse in Minnesota: are these structural failures signs of things to come if we don't fund infrastructure properly? Could these devastations have been prevented?

Pat Natale: We’re not speculating—the National Safety Board is analyzing the damages to see if these were incidences that could have been prevented. Our concern goes back to maintenance issues: roughly 157,000 of our bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete. It’s about maintenance. Are we investing enough? Were we prepared to handle Katrina?

Crumbling infrastructure cannot support a healthy economy. Our studies have proven that investments in infrastructure help economic development. Infrastructure projects create a number of new jobs for construction and commerce.

PT: Are there more barriers today for attaining proper funding for infrastructure than in the past? If so, what are they?

Pat Natale: Infrastructure is a pretty critical issue, but we’ve got things like Social Security and healthcare to deal with. We’re not saying not to take the other issues off the table—the problem is that it’s not on the agenda.

If you look back at Eisenhower’s interstate highway program, he saw value in faster roadways, looking to the Audubon as an example. For years, legislators really did see value in investing in infrastructure. The report card was driven by what we saw as deficient infrastructure policy under Reagan. But infrastructure affects both sides of the aisle.

We have these wide funding gaps—five to six years ago a 5% increase in gas tax was proposed to fund initiatives, but critics claimed it would destroy the economy. Wouldn’t it be nice if a little of that had gone to rebuild our country today?

PT: Are you saying that the attention needed for infrastructure projects rests on the federal level?

Pat Natale: This is not only a federal issue—it should be an issue with the public, the states, businesses; small and local governments. Potholes we all deal with, but when repairs are needed we ignore them, instead throwing in a couple $100 to repair on our own cars from the damage. Neglected road maintenance adds to wasted time, traffic congestion…all of this adds up and impacts us on regular basis.

PT: In your experience, are legislators on both the state and federal level responsive to the issues concerning your organization?

Pat Natale: The Report Card has gotten a lot of attention, some of them do get it and are reacting to it. But the steam pipe bursting in New York; Katrina and the I-35 Bridge—was that a wake up call?

It seemed to be; there was a burst of energy and interest by the government, the press and the public, but in the end there was no real action.

Power, water, you expect to have these things. We deserve it all—what are these politicians going to do about it? What they need is a comprehensive plan to go forward. It pays more to fix it, not to maintain it. And when lives are lost there’s a lot more on the line.

It’s a leadership issue.

PT: If it is a leadership issue, who's responsible?

Pat Natale: In a sense, I think we’re all responsible. If we allow it and say, “oh I’m only sitting in traffic five minutes more a day, is that really helping things?

There’s got to be holistic solution. We’re looking at a need for more roads, major policy changes—maybe give incentives, encourage telecommuting or a 4-day work week… there are many ways to solve the problem. If we let the big picture go, that’s one of our faults. We need a prioritized plan.

I think it’s appalling that we have funding for No Child Left Behind, but we have schools that are in trailers; we have classes that we don’t have enough facilities for; or improper heating or cooling systems. You can’t study when you’re freezing and you’ve got a heavy coat on. Every day we wait, we’re making things worse.

If your roof is leaking, eventually that water is going to cause structural damages. We need to be proactive. Again, we need a comprehensive plan, not just for one for patching.

PT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Pat Natale: I would just encourage you to tell our local officials that we need to act now!

PT: Mr. Natale, thank you for your time.