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The High Cost of Bad Infrastructure

David Callahan

It was just yesterday that I wrote about why Democrats and Republicans alike should be able to get behind bigger investments in infrastructure. One point I made is that it's cheaper to fix small problems now than big problems later.

This morning, tens of thousands of commuters in Washington State—including, I'm sure, many from both political parties—woke up to a huge hassle thanks to the collapse last night of a bridge on Interstate 5 north of Seattle. 

What brought down this crucial bridge, over which 67,000 people travel every day? Not much: Just one oversized truck that struck parts of the bridge. Apparently the crossing was just an accident waiting to happen—on the most important interstate in the Pacific Northwest. Fortunately nobody was hurt. But the collapse is predicted widespread disruption in the flow of people and goods in the area, at a huge economic cost. 

The accident comes as Washington is trying to find the money to replace another important bridge in the state, at a cost of $3.2 billion. The federal government has allocated $1.2 billion to the project, but Washington hasn't been able to find the rest. 

That shortfall underscores the stupidity of austerity. Unemployment in Washington stands at 7 percent, and is much higher for construction workers there. Meanwhile, according to the American Society for Civil Engineers, over 350  bridges in the state are structurally deficient and Washington has various other unmet infrastructure problems, including a backlog of water works projects that need to be funded. 

All told, the ASCE gives Washington a "C" when it comes to infrastructure. 

This would be a great time to tackle such disrepair given the ready availability of workers and the historically low borrowing rates for public projects. 

The bridge that collapsed last night should have already been fixed, putting people to work. Instead, I-5 is one big mess.