Functionally Obsolete

Our deteriorating infrastructure is a bigger problem than gas prices

Soaring gas prices may be the most pressing problem commuters currently face, but it is hardly the only one. There is also the nation’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure. As the round of recriminations after last summer’s Minneapolis bridge collapse revealed, patching potholes won’t even begin to address the dilemma. One in four of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or “functionally obsolete.” And while the I-35 tragedy was ultimately based on a “design flaw,” that’s about as reassuring as the realization that a considerable portion of America’s interstate system will soon be pushing retirement age.

Knoxville, despite TDOT’s endless parade of orange barrels, doesn’t appear to be in much better shape, either. Interstate 40 through downtown is in the midst of a massive redo aimed to reduce a recurring bottleneck, namely the short span over Gay Street that was the last remaining two-lane stretch of I-40 within Knox County. Meanwhile, barely a block south, the city’s ripping up the 100 Block of Gay Street to replace an almost century-old elevated section of roadway.

Of the two, TDOT considered I-40 “functionally obsolete,” too narrow to handle the traffic traversing downtown (“traversing” being the appropriate term, since most of the traffic was just passing through). Worse, while the overpasses carrying I-40 across Gay, Gill or Central don’t inspire much confidence, the raised deck of the 100 Block had deteriorated to the point that my heart skipped a beat whenever a KAT bus rumbled across. Nor are such white-knuckle moments unique to Knoxville. When I worked in downtown Nashville over a decade ago, for instance, the old Church Street viaduct had a distressing habit of dropping hunks of concrete onto cars parked underneath.

Nationwide, during the ’80s and ’90s, government spending on infrastructure averaged less than 2 percent of GDP. The numbers have risen slightly since, but still lag the mid-1960s peak of over 3 percent brought on by build-out of the Interstate Highway system. Those numbers don’t differentiate between repair and upkeep and new construction, so most of that money probably represents the myriad bypasses, connectors and added lanes brought on by “functional obsolescence” as what were once country roads struggled to keep up with suburban growth. No wonder much of our older urban street grid, like the 100 Block, is in such bad shape.

Speaking of functional obsolescence, “transportation infrastructure” in America essentially translates into roads and highways to the exclusion of all else. Mass transit, whether rail or bus, receives a pittance of the funding allocated for road construction, and Amtrak faces a constant struggle to simply survive. As a result, mass transit in most cities is an option of last resort, reserved for America’s true second-class citizens, the car-less. Likewise, like Knoxville, most cities lack inter-city rail connections and those that do receive service that would embarrass Bulgaria.

Which brings me back to $4 a gallon gas. There was an interesting piece in the News Sentinel last week about how KAT’s struggling to deal with rising fuel costs as, due to those costs, ridership increases. Even more interesting were the online comments, where readers lamented that they might ride the bus, if only it came closer to their house or workplace. Transit, to be viable, requires density. Unfortunately, density is what our transportation policies have spent the past six decades destroying. And not just our far-flung freeways, either: Downtown has been hollowed out for surface parking and numerous neighborhoods bulldozed down for road projects. Fourth and Gill, for example, was twice its current size before I-40 tore through on its way downtown.

Now TDOT’s rebuilding it, even as the current shutdown casts doubt on whether Knoxville really needs it. And those rising gas prices and the resulting decline in driving raise even more questions. When the new I-40 downtown is finished, will it still be functionally obsolete, but for different reasons? m

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Comments » 3

analytika writes:

Will Democrats join in a repealing of "prevailing pay" laws that require payment of high-end unionized levels of compensation for workers on Public Works projects? And support a relaxation of environmental impact regulation?

Without these changes, there is no sense in discussing infrastructure renewal and growth. It's not affordable without sacrificing other sacred cows, like Public Education and Health.

aaron writes:

It's not just our obsolete roads that are causing problems, it's also our obsolete thinking.

High Gas Prices Drive Down Fuel Efficiency

We are currently enduring a natural experiment on the effects of higher gas prices. While it has spurred movement toward more efficient technology, it has brought about some severe consequences that will need to be dealt with.

Last month it was reported that driving in the US was down 4.3% in March compared to last year. What everyone missed was that gasoline consumption wasn't. It was down less than 2%.

For the year, gasoline consumption is down little more than 1/2%.

We aren't using less fuel, we're getting less done with the fuel we are using.

If the most efficient driving was being eliminated, it still couldn't explain the large difference in fuel efficiency. The driving being cut would need to be several times more efficient than normal to have such a negligible impact on fuel consumption. This is not plausible.

Among the reasons: Less efficient fuel mixtures may be being used; People are acting on bad advice. We've known for awhile now that accelerating faster is more fuel efficient (this is even before considering the beneficial effects on traffic), yet people believe the opposite; People may be driving more at high traffic times to generate needed income and be too tired and poor to drive at other times; And, during the economic slow down, communities may be neglecting good traffic management (e.g. not timing traffic lights properly).

We also need to consider whether higher prices will strengthen the movement toward more efficient technology or have little additional effect (i.e. Has the move has already happened and will further price pressure be of no value?).

Additionally, we need to realize that in the mid-term, our current vehicle fleet and the infrastructure to produce more aren’t suddenly going to disappear. New tech won’t wash out these adverse effects.

[The gasoline consumption data can be found here:

It's in excel format. See U.S. Weekly Finished Motor Gasoline Product Supplied (Thousand Barrels per Day).

The Energy Information Administration defines Production Supplied as their calculation of consumption:

Products Supplied Approximately represents consumption of petroleum products because it measures the disappearance of these products from primary sources, i.e., refineries, natural gas processing plants, blending plants, pipelines, and bulk terminals. In general, product supplied of each product in any given period is computed as follows: field production, plus refinery production, plus imports, plus unaccounted for crude oil, (plus net receipts when calculated on a PAD District basis), minus stock change, minus crude oil losses, minus refinery inputs, minus exports. ]

david#204385 writes:

Surely if in the 1960s we built the whole Interstate highway system from
nothing, and spent 3% of GDP doing it, it should be possible to maintain it for
2%? Remembering, of course, that percentage of GDP automatically
compensates for inflation.

I will freely admit that our roads and bridges look in pathetic shape,
especially in the ancient East Coast. But in view of the rate of expenditure, I'd
strongly suggest that we start from the possibility that costs are too high,
instead of expenditures too low, and proceed from there.

Eliminating the Union monopoly seems like a good start to me.


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