The Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh, that collapsed Friday morning, just hours after President Joe Biden was due to visit the city to promote the passing of $1.2 trillion in federal funding, is a good example about America’s real infrastructure problem.
It isn’t a lack in money.
Biden didn’t offer this lesson. Biden spoke later Friday at the site of the collapsed bridge and said that it all came down to money. “This is the first time in the country’s history we dedicated a national program to repair and upgrade bridges—and it’s about time,” Biden said, before promising that the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure package would provide enough funding to fix all of America’s 43,000 structurally deficient bridges. “We’re going to send the money,” Biden said.
That’s somewhat dubious—the Fern Hollow Bridge had been rated in “poor condition” for years, but it was not on the list of projects due to be funded by the new infrastructure bill.
However, the bigger issue isn’t related to the infrastructure package Biden has created. This is due to poor decision-making and budgeting by local and state governments that are responsible for the majority of roads and bridges across America.
Pennsylvania is an excellent example. Pennsylvania is a perfect example.
Is that possible? It’s because the state has done an inadequate job setting priorities. An audit in 2019 found that the $4.2 billion of gas tax revenue, which could have been used for road and bridge repairs, was diverted over six years to pay state police.
Eugene DePasquale the state auditor general stated at that time, “There is an inherent deal,” WHYY (a Philadelphia-based public radio station) said. You’ll have this high gasoline tax but it will be used to finance roads and bridges. They find out that it isn’t happening and they get upset.”
It’s an awful lot of money, which was not being used for its intended purpose. The New York Times reported this week that fixing all the structural issues with bridges in Pittsburgh would cost an estimated $458 million—a big price tag, but only about one-tenth of what the state redirected toward the state police in the years before DePasquale’s audit.
Pittsburgh, too is guilty. Randal O’Toole has a great article. AntiplannerBlog: The city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure spent approximately $6 million per year on bridge maintenance and repairs over the last five-years. But it has spent, on average, more than $8 million annually on so-called “complete streets” projects—like bike lanes, sidewalks, beautification projects, and the like.
O’Toole notes that $1.5million was needed to bring the Fern Hollow bridge back into good shape. The city instead of fixing the bridge, it spent $1.3 million last year on bike-sharing.
However, you will not hear this from infrastructure professionals or politicians who were quoted after another near-tragedy. It’s all about more money for them. Kent Harries, University of Pittsburgh engineering professor, said, “Ultimately, it is a problem of resource.” TribLive. “I hope it’s a wake-up call to the nation that we need to make these infrastructure investments,” Lt. Gov. John Fetterman spoke from the spot of the collapse to a local radio station.
Overall, federal infrastructure packages suffers from misplaced priorities. The federal infrastructure package has $40 billion to fund bridge projects. Biden’s highly-hyped spending plan, however, will allocate $156 billion to mass transit agencies and $40 billion to green energy grants (think Solyndra), $48 billion to subsidize broadband and $7.5 million for charging stations for electric vehicles. Even though these items are very nice, they can’t prevent another bridge from collapsing.
As always, effective governance is mostly a matter of budgeting well—and budgeting is really nothing more than priority setting, given that public resources are not unlimited. Pennsylvania is a bad state at setting priorities. This can be seen in the state’s sorry roads and bridges. This underlying issue will not be addressed by more federal funding for infrastructure.