Supply Chain News: The Many Challenges of Getting US Infrastructure Right

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The handwringing over the state of US infrastructure continues apace, with it seems a general consensus that more (maybe much more) investment is needed, but with a real lack of clarity on really how much more - and of course how to pay for it.

Into that debate comes a new book from Dr. Henry Petroski, a professor of both history and civil engineering at Duke University, titled "The Road Taken," a very interesting look at the history of US infrastructure - and most importantly how decisions were made over the course of more than two centuries that contribute to and inform where we stand today.

The operating policy for much US infrastructure development, especially lately, has been "good enough," Petroski says, meaning materials and techniques just adequate enough to do the job.

Petroski is one that firmly believes much higher levels of investment are needed in the US, commenting early on that "American is now at a fork in the road regarding choices that must be made regarding US infrastructure," with much of the four million miles of roads and bridges having been "built for an earlier time, now in poor repair, and increasingly congested."

The term "infrastructure" seems to have been first used in 1927, but saw almost no real adoption until the 1940s, when it was first applied to describe support for the military in terms of bases and camps to supply the fighting force. In the 1950s, a few urban planners began applying the word to roads, bridges and such.

But the term didn't really enter the common parlance until just the 1980s, when a few major newspapers began to place it in articles, usually in quotations to signify the newness of the word.

Of course, just what actually falls under the umbrella of "infrastructure" is not clear and evolving. Certainly most of us think of roads and bridges, but the quadrennial report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers now includes some 16 categories, including areas like ports and even schools and parks.

But for supply chain professionals and even for the general public, transportation-related areas generally take center stage in the infrastructure discussion and debate, attention driven by the growing congestion and commute times in many metro areas, and the horror of the occasional major US bridge failure, which occurs roughly every 30 years, Petroski notes.

The debate about US infrastructure may have been going on for longer than many realize. In 1919, a young Dwight Eisenhower, then a lieutenant colonel in the army, was one of a number of participants in a cross country trip by car and truck from Washington DC to San Francisco. It took the 81 vehicles on the trip 62 days to travel the 3250 miles, averaging about 50 miles per day or 5 miles per hour, with much of the trip travelled over unpaved roads.

The experience would ultimately influence Eisenhower's strong support for the interstate highway system launched when he was later president in the 1950s.

In more recent times, a report in 1981 from the Council of State Planning Agencies was among the first sources to note the connection between infrastructure and economic growth, writing that "public works play a crucial role in the creation of national wealth and productivity growth."

Petroski himself says that "Road construction has always had an enormous ripple effect on the economy."

The 1981 report also warned that public infrastructure in the US was wearing out faster than it was being replaced, a situation many believe is even more acute today than it was when the report was written.

Of course, if infrastructure spending led to a more than its cost in true economic growth, maybe such decisions on investment would be much easier. But getting agreement on those kinds of numbers is difficult. The Transportation Institute Texas A&M recently estimated that traffic congestion costs the country $121 billion annually, $27 billion specifically for truckers, in terms of time and extra fuel expense from waiting in traffic. There is even more cost, others estimate, from damage to cars and trucks from bumpy roads filled with pot holes.

Those numbers should mean consumers and trucking firms ought to be happy to spend equal amounts of those estimated costs to alleviate the congestion, most likely from increases in taxes on gas and diesel fuels, and indeed the American Trucking Associations has long supported such increases.

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But how do regular drivers really value their time? How much more would they really be willing to pay to reduce the congestion? In just the last couple of weeks, the operator of a high speed toll road connecting part of the heavily travelled drive between Austin and San Antonio filed for bankruptcy, after the number of cars and trucks using the route fell short of expectations, as many opted for the slower but free non-toll highways.

Of course, taxes on gasoline and diesel haven't risen since 1993, but Petroski says that through about 2000 the revenues from the taxes were generally able to keep up with spending needs. But a decrease in miles driven and much improved fuel mileage led to slowing growth in those tax dollars, and much scrambling to find the needed money. For some time now, in fact, some $10 billion in funds for federal road spending has come annually from general revenues, above and beyond the fuel taxes.

When a one year deal was reached in 2014 to keep funding of the Highway Trust Fund fpr another year, several billion dollars of the supposed revenues came from somewhat questionable sources, such as "tightening tax rules on mortgage interest, extending the statute of limitations on capital gains transactions, and withholding Medicare payments to delinquent taxpayers. Such is the way the government works," Petroski writes.

The author has a very interesting chapter on short versus long term thinking in terms of road repair and maintenance. The operating policy for much US infrastructure development, especially lately, has been "good enough," Petroski says, meaning materials and techniques just adequate enough to do the job. That often results in larger costs long term, and while there is always a "safety factor" built in, many projects soon see their maximum usage design loads exceeded much earlier than intended.

There is a growing belief in the theory of "optimal timing" for road maintenance, Petroski says, meaning that rather than always focusing on the roads in the worst state first, it may be better to maintain roads that have not really started to decay, perhaps extending their life before a major resurfacing by many years, and saving dollars in the long term.

But of course voters aren't yet complaining about pot holes in the roads that haven't started to really decay, and likely will question why the seemingly good road is getting attention while the bad one remains untouched. There is a similar dynamic with regards to concrete versus asphalt, with concrete often much less expensive in the long term, Petroski says, but highway officials going with asphalt nevertheless due to current budget realities or the focus on getting more roads paved now.

"If America's highway infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate much below the current state, the cost of just maintaining it in a condition no worse than it is now could be overwhelming," Petroski notes near the end of the book. "Neither voters nor elected officials should be satisfied with or tolerate the mediocre to poor infrastructure that we are told our nation now possesses."

Ah, but just recently, 59% of Missouri voters said No to an increase in the state sales tax specifically targeted to generate funds for roads and bridges.

And there is the rub. Trillions of dollars are said to be needed to upgrade US infrastructure, and there is just no path at all to generate that kind of funding. We wish Petroski had dug a bit deeper into the math of all this, and articulated where he would place the priorities given the limitations of funding, but that is a minor complaint in what is an excellent and entertaining primer on this critical topic.

How do you see the US infrastructure issue? What is the right path between what we have now and the total amount some say we need to invest but for which the public simply will not pay? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.

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