Cons of Bureaucratic Infrastructure Maintenance

From an article circulated amongst my family members:

Oberstar said the discovery of the Ohio bridge problem and its similarity to what happened in Minneapolis should renew concerns about the nation’s bridges. He said it underscores the need for a bill he’s sponsored that would increase the number of bridge inspectors around the country, as well as offer them more training opportunities.

Note how the solution to the failure of big government is always *MORE GOVERNMENT*.  The problem was a systematic failure of bureaucratic processes to build and maintain safe bridges.  Simply adding more inspectors for input into the bureaucracy, or dumping more money into the wasteful bureaucracy will not fix the problem.

When this first happened I thought to myself, “Where can I find examples of bridges of similar size, load-bearing capability, and age that are privately owned – and do they ever have failures?”

The answer is that the railroads are expert private bridge builders and maintainers.  Even though a bridge failure might cost only two human lives (Conductor and Engineer), the economic impact of a bridge failure would be severe – resulting in bottlenecks, delays, and all sorts of other headaches for the railroad at a substantial loss of profit.

I conducted a search of railroad bridge collapses in several periodical search databases from the library.  There *were* several railroad bridge collapses, but all failures were either in cases where the bridge was damaged by an accident (for example the Bayou Canot, LA bridge failure that swallowed up the Sunset Limited after a barge accident damaged the bridge)  or in cases where extreme weather such as flooding or a hurricane damaged the bridge.  In *most* of these cases the bridge was inspected *before* the accident happened (privately owned bridges do not face a shortage of inspectors).  In fact, the CSX bridge that led to the Sunset Limited wreck was damaged between the time when it was inspected *earlier that day* and when the Amtrak train crossed it.

For every hour that a railroad bridge is out of service, it may make an entire cross country rail route unusable and cost the railroads millions of dollars in train re-routes, crew overtime, and late fees to “Just in Time” shipping customers.  The railroad has an obligation to its shareholders (people like you and me who probably own railroad stock as part of our retirement funds) to keep things running – and when they fail, to get them running again, even at great effort and expense.

The government, however, faces no such sense of urgency.  Though a bridge outage may also cost millions or even billions in losses, it’s not viewed as a direct loss by bureaucrats and politicians tasked with re-building it.  Just look at this case from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

In August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina flattened two bridges, one for cars, one for trains, that span the two miles of water separating this city of 8,000 from the town of Pass Christian. Sixteen months later, the automobile bridge remains little more than pilings. The railroad bridge is busy with trains.

The difference: The still-wrecked bridge is owned by the U.S. government. The other is owned by railroad giant CSX Corp. of Jacksonville, Fla. Within weeks of Katrina’s landfall, CSX dispatched construction crews to fix the freight line; six months later, the bridge reopened. Even a partial reopening of the road bridge, part of U.S. Highway 90, is at least five months away.

“It shows the difference between the private sector and the public sector,” says Harold “Buz” Olsen, chief administrative officer of Bay St. Louis, who displays a photograph of the train bridge in the city council chambers as a reminder. “By the time CSX was done with their bridge, we were just getting around to letting the contract on ours.”

The public infrastructure system also suffers from another fatal flaw.  The politicians and bureaucrats charged with maintaining bridges and other vital public infrastructure need to secure public funding – often through taxation – to fund their repairs.  The sad fact is that this is a *lot* easier if your infrastructure is falling apart than if it is in great shape. 

With the railroads, funding to maintain their infrastructure is automatic.  Preventative maintenance is a financial necessity.  As a result, many railroad bridges in service today are in excellent shape – despite being built long before the 40 year old highway bridge that failed in Minnesota.  Private railroad bridges rarely require replacement – unless the railroad needs greater capacity either due to larger loads, an increased number of tracks, or to increase bridge clearances to accommodate modern railroad equipment such as “double stack” Intermodal railcars.

With highway bridges, often only decades old, the structures are neglected.  By the time maintenance funding is secured through political and bureaucratic wrangling, total replacement is the only feasible option.

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