Bridges, Budgets and the Biosphere

Infrastructure projects can find funding and avoid delays without harming the environment

By Brianna Fries

We’ve stated the obvious plenty of times now: our infrastructure as a nation is extremely deficient. The paths to repairing it are complicated and varied. Everyone has different ideas on what route we should take, and clashes between these opinions in government, particularly at the federal level, lead to nothing but incredulous delays and ballooning costs as structures and systems decay even further.

I researched one of these troublesome projects thoroughly for this issue. The Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, located in North Carolina, exceeded its life expectancy 30 years ago and is just now being replaced. While the new bridge will have a 100 year lifespan (more than three times that of its predecessor) and will feature the latest technologies and methods to keep it sound despite harsh coastal conditions, the massive delays that plagued the project resulted in expensive maintenance of the old bridge. The North Carolina Department of Transportation reported that preventative maintenance between 1978 and 1992 alone cost an estimated $9.3 million. Those costs could have been invested into a new bridge much, much earlier, but instead, by 2007, travelers were driving over the ocean on a structure that had a sufficiency rating of two out of 100.

The Bonner Bridge Replacement Project was named in an April press release from Trump’s White House as an example of environmental reviews taking too long. While this is obviously true, we tread a very fragile line when we decide to weigh the possible environmental impacts of a project against its immediate civilian benefits.

Most everyone can agree that protecting our land, seas, and other natural resources is of utmost importance, because they sustain our lives as we know them. But we also must protect human lives from disasters caused by failure of critical infrastructure. In the case of the Bonner Bridge, what would have happened if the bridge had collapsed into the ocean, taking cars and travelers along with it? Would all of the environmental reviews preventing the new project from reaching fruition be worth it then? And would not that catastrophe have also affected ocean wildlife, releasing concrete, oil, and other foreign materials into their habitats? How can we find a balance that helps us fix our infrastructure while simultaneously protecting the environment and human life? I wish I had the answer, and I think many policymakers wish they did too.

But even if we figured out a way to balance these concerns and move forward with critical projects, we still would need to find the money to fund them. Trump’s deflection of blame onto environmental activists hides the federal government’s inability to pull the trigger on important decisions and then find the fiscal means to back these up. As Manuel Lazerov points out in his column, “Local Opportunities for Improving Infrastructure,” “One shouldn’t expect elected members of Congress to bail out local public officials seeking funding, especially in an election year, as they do not wish to be attacked as irresponsible stewards of the federal budget…they are always under public pressure when it comes to spending and taxes. They may talk up infrastructure as a necessity, but that’s about it.”

Occasionally magnificent plans are approved and presented to the public, such as the Federal Transit Administration’s appropriations bill signed by Trump on March 23, 2018. This tasked the FTA with distributing approximately $1.4 billion across the country for transportation infrastructure projects. But nearly half a year later, only a measly $25 million has actually been awarded.

Transportation for America has found that 17 projects have raised their share of local funds and are ready to begin construction, but are waiting on the FTA to contribute their promised share. This delay could result in inflated construction costs, as well as continued costs to maintain the old systems – in essence, leaving the projects in the same limbo that the Bonner Bridge Replacement Project lingered in for so long, which was one of the subjects of the administration’s criticism.

But there are still opportunities to repair our infrastructure. In their column “A Brief Guide for Local Government Officials to Public-Private Partnerships,” Greg Hummel and James Drescoll outline the many benefits of P3s for municipal projects. If local policymakers are willing to hurdle the challenges of organizing P3s, the results can be outstanding, and can enact quick and lasting change without having to wait on the federal government. These partnerships also take into account the life cycle costs of a project, ensuring that a maintenance plan is in place, and the structure or system will not immediately fall into neglect.

Excessive delays in repairing critical infrastructure can be costly for the government, for the environment, and for human life. We have to stop waiting and start pushing our leaders to make changes that can benefit all parties involved. The costs of letting our infrastructure decay completely will be far, far greater than any price we pay now.

Brianna Fries is Assistant Editor for American Infrastructure Magazine. She may be reached at brianna@penpubinc.com

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.