“Fix it first!” New projects get the headlines, but we need to repair what we already have

In January 2003, just days after being sworn in as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney stood alongside a structurally deficient bridge on Route 2 and said: "Fix it first!"

That declaration would become a fundamental component of his transportation policy agenda. It was crystal-clear direction given to me as his new transportation secretary. And it was a bold statement to the citizens of our Commonwealth: A “new” transportation policy had to recognize the fact that what we had built over the years was no longer “new.” In fact, it was (and is) falling apart. Only after we’ve figured out how to tackle the backlog of repairs across the transportation network would we then look at all but a very few expansion projects. That was bold.

Groundbreaking Why bold? Because most politicians want to cut the ribbon on “new” projects, not rehabilitation efforts. And it’s understandable. New stuff tends to get more attention and generate greater excitement in the imagination. It grabs the headlines. The “photo op” first-shovel-in-the-ground gets you a front page story that conveys to the voters the notion you’re getting things done. "Vote for me, and get more of that."

Romney was different because he was willing to take what was the less appealing yet necessary position. With limited resources available, taking care of existing infrastructure had to come first. And he was right. Common sense dictates the need to rebuild over the desire to build new. You have to repair the leaking roof on your house before you start work on the new addition.

There are a lot of inconvenient truths these days. Here’s another: We don’t have enough money to fix what we have already built and invested in, even as we are pulled by the need to keep expanding our infrastructure to continue to grow the economy. So we attempt to do both, and neither effort is going very well. Not expanding stifles growth. Not repairing is a reliability, a safety, and a security issue, as the recent report by David D’Alessandro so well described

America didn’t build a first-world economy on third-world transportation infrastructure. Yet, much of our infrastructure is starting to look that way.

In his recently released book, Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America, and Why It Must Rebuild Now, Felix Rohatyn makes the case to rebuild America. But he begins his call to mend-the-broken by inspiring us with tales of “ten large and transformative events in American history” which moved the nation forward through intelligent and very grand public investment. The book contains historical case studies of big actions by the US government which literally built America.

Then he goes on to detail what we all know. The place is falling apart. Billions and even trillions of dollars are needed to repair roads, bridges, tunnels, transit systems, airports, etc. The infrastructure investments that made America great are creaking, leaking, and breaking. They need a major overhaul. Okay, not so exciting a message. But I got it. So now what?

I understand that the main argument throughout the book is that government action can and has done good things that have greatly enhanced our economy, such as building canals, railroads, bridges, and interstate highways. But at the time they were all new, new, new and new initiatives. Can people get all fired up about rebuilding them? Aren’t we more excited about building the addition on our house than replacing our roof? Even a bathroom makeover is more exciting that repointing the bricks on your chimney. So you put off the work on your chimney. You patch it — until you simply must do it or the chimney will fall over. That’s where we are now. And therein lies the challenge for the political leaders today.

Everyone can get fired up about the stories in Rohatyn’s book. They capture the imagination as much today as when they were first begun. Just listen to his chapter titles: "The Louisiana Purchase," "The Transcontinental Railroad," "The Panama Canal," "The Interstate Highway System"! You can hear a John Philip Sousa march as you trod through this history. But here’s the thing. After all these bold, new endeavors, he calls upon us to… rebuild all of it. Now the tune shifts and I hear Miss Peggy Lee singing, "Is That All There Is?" Americans like bold and new. What if JFK had pledged that we would repair every structurally deficient bridge by the end of the 1960s, instead of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth? Not quite the same pizazz.

So I tried mentally writing chapters 11, 12, 13 and so on of this book. Here are my chapter titles: "Repaving the Roads," "Rebuilding the Bridges," "Replacing the Tracks," and "Upgrading the Signal Systems."

I may be selling this stuff a bit short. And when you read the book, you’ll see that Rohatyn does have a big idea to advance the cause: He calls for the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) to fund the rebuilding. It is an idea that is catching attention nationally. An NIB would leverage what we are currently investing from government sources with private investments to increase the pie and get serious about fixing things — and maybe generate money for some expansion projects, too. It certainly is one answer to the question of where all the money necessary to rebuild might come from. Because once you make fix-it-first a priority, the other big problem is paying for it.

The thing I can’t figure out is how to inspire the citizenry, the taxpayers, that this is as important as building the tallest, biggest, newest thing. Launching the Hubble Telescope to explore the universe = exciting. Repairing the Hubble Telescope = not so much.

MinnesotaBridge I hope it won’t take a disaster to stir us to action. We do tend to act more often in reaction to a crisis than proactively and thoughtfully. When the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis completely fell down in August 2007 (see photo), it was supposed to be a national wake-up call. The images were startling. But we didn’t exactly leap out of bed and have at the work before us. The excuse: it wasn’t so much the age or condition of the bridge as its design that was flawed. Phew!

What will it take? Please, no school bus crossing a shaky bridge somewhere at the wrong time. (Fact: There are more than half a million structurally deficient bridges across the United States today. More than 30 percent of the more than half a million bridges across the United States are structurally deficient today.)

In Massachusetts, we continue the debate on significant expansion projects: South Coast Rail, Blue Line to Lynn, Green Line to Somerville/Medford, new lanes on Route 128, etc. But we are also about the business of rebuilding as a state as well. (Fact: Massachusetts has more than 500 structurally deficient bridges today.) The total cost for even the largest mega expansion project we are looking at pales in comparison to the Accelerated Bridge Program, described on the Massachusetts Department of Transportation website:

The Accelerated Bridge Program represents a monumental and historic investment in Massachusetts bridges. Over the next 8 years, nearly $3 billion in funding will be accelerated to improve the condition of bridges in every corner of the Commonwealth. This program will greatly reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges in the state system, while creating thousands of construction jobs on bridge projects.

It is good news and the right investment. The bad news is that we have not identified enough money to fix all structurally deficient bridges. And not spending stimulus monies in a timely fashion, as was widely reported recently, doesn’t help the situation.

But I believe that if we put our minds to it and decide it is important, we will. We have met far greater challenges at far worse times in the past. Rohatyn’s book points out that many of the bold (and quite costly endeavors) were launched in times of great national crisis: during wars and in depressions. The book rekindles optimism to face this inconvenient truth about our infrastructure. We did build the transcontinental railroad on the eve of and during the Civil War! We did electrify rural America during the Great Depression! We can tackle today’s challenges even fighting two wars and the most significant recession in 80 years!

It requires leadership and entails some risk. We must realize that the maturity of our national infrastructure requires a national maturity — to focus and to spend when it isn’t fun, bold, new, or exciting.

First photo:

Meet the Author
Second photo:

Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard, via Wikipedia