As Tom G. Palmer wrote in the February 1983 Inquiry magazine (disclosure: I worked there), "it is no accident that while the rhetoric is repair, the reality is new construction." He continues:
Highway-improvement politics differs little from military hardware procurement. Rather than keeping old systems in good repair, money flows into flashy new structures where millions can be lavished on consultants, research, and planning.
Big construction projects—not well-executed maintenance projects—deliver political rewards, Palmer holds. "Nobody ever held a ribbon cutting-ceremony for the painting of a bridge," he observes this week.
For those of us who track infrastructure madness in the press, the current round is mighty familiar. As deplorable as our bridges may be, they're better than they were a generation ago. Today, the government classifies about 25 percent of U.S. bridges as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. A July 18, 1982, New York Times article headlined "Alarm Rise Over Decay in U.S. Public Works" cites government statistics that classify 45 percent of U.S. bridges deficient or obsolete. *
Infrastructure madness has already spread from the bridges to America's waterworks, where the New York Times pegged an April 18 story about the fragility of America's water system to the fact that the town of Chelan, Wash., still has some wood pipes. Not until you reach the story's end do you learn that Chelan is a resort town (summer population 3,860) and that its remaining wood pipes are not an infrastructure problem. Chelan's director of public works is replacing the last 500-foot section before it fails because repairing wood pipe requires expertise he doesn't have.
See SewerHistory.org for a wonderful wood pipe overview. Read my fleeting thoughts through the wood pipes of the Internet at Twitter. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word bridges in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to email@example.com.
Correction, April 22, 2009: The original version of this article gave the incorrect date of the 1982 New York Times article about public works. (Return to the corrected sentence.)