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The collapse of a bridge in Pittsburgh — hours before President Biden was to visit the city to discuss infrastructure — was a coincidence stranger than fiction.

But while it is tempting to sensationalize the bridge collapse as part of a national crisis, America’s infrastructure has steadily improved over the past two decades. A recent Congressional Research Service report titled “The Condition of Highway Bridges Continues to Improve” noted that “the number and share of bridges in poor condition have dropped significantly over the past 20 years.”

It added that “[The Federal Highway Administration’s] own analysis of bridge data suggests a relatively modest increase in spending could substantially reduce or eliminate the backlog of economically justifiable investments if sustained over a 20-year period.”

Funding levels remain healthy. Across all levels of government, spending on highways, roads, and bridges rose from $216 billion to $240 billion (adjusted for inflation) between 2007 and 2019. More broadly, government spending on transportation and water infrastructure is 2.3% of the GDP ($440 billion), just slightly below the 30-year average of 2.5%.

Construction continues on a new $463 million Nice/Middleton Bridge on April 8, 2021 in Newburg, Maryland. The bridge will replace the current Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge, which links Newburg, Maryland to Dahlgren, Virginia.
After the Pittsburgh bridge collapse, President Biden promised to “fix them all.”
Getty Images / Drew Angerer
Road workers repaves road with steam.
Workers repave a road with steam in California.
Universal Images Group via Getty / Joe Sohm

That said, if America is serious about accelerating its infrastructure repair and development, the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will surely disappoint.

Just 20% of the $550 billion in new spending was allocated to roads and bridges, which over a decade will add just 4% to that category of spending. Not exactly a moonshot. Because surface transportation is primarily a state and local function, states could take the lead by allocating to infrastructure much of the $350 billion in grants they recently received in the American Rescue Plan. Thus far, most have not.

Yet spending levels are not the main problem. While politicians are good at writing checks, they continue to ignore the excessive red tape and bureaucracy that holds back America’s infrastructure. The inflation-adjusted cost of interstate construction spending per mile quadrupled from 1960 through 1990, and has continued to grow since then.

Our subway systems are by far the world’s most expensive to build, and in New York City cost quadruple the world average. America requires many more workers to do the same building work as Europe. Labor costs are higher in part because the Davis-Bacon Act raises wage costs by as much as 22%, and government-mandated project labor agreements can raise construction costs by as much as 30%.

Hudson Yards Subway Station. Leak area over the escalators.
Leaks over the Hudson Yards subway station escalator in NYC cause closures for straphangers.
Tamara Beckwith/NY Post
Officials gather at the edge of bridge that collapsed Friday, Jan 28.
Ten people were injured when a bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh on Jan. 28.
AP / Gene J. Puskar

Environmental impact statements require on average seven years to complete — with some projects taking 17 years or even 25 years. These statements take no more than one to two years in Canada and three and a half years in the European Union. And because no ground can be broken until all appeals are litigated, project opponents can effectively veto infrastructure projects by filing endless environmental-impact lawsuits.

Overall, a wide-ranging analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that federal investments deliver half the returns of private-sector investments. CBO added that federal investments financed by taxes or debt — rather than spending offsets — could even have negative returns.

America’s infrastructure is not in crisis — even when one of its 617,000 bridges collapses. However, lawmakers focused on improving infrastructure should prioritize reforming the waste, delays, and cost overruns.

Brian Riedl is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Brian_Riedl.

Source: NYPOST

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