It’s Turtles All the Way Down

There is a massive gap in — what is said vs. what is known — when it comes to the cost of repairing our national infrastructure. The absence of quality infrastructure data at the federal, state, and local levels has left open the door to wasteful federal spending, predatory privatization efforts, and the continued structural collapse of critical infrastructure. While trillions in project financing is being discussed, the most impactful expenditure the federal government can make is in standardizing the collection and analysis of infrastructure data to improve repair and maintenance nationwide.

Our Infrastructure Data Deserves an “F”

With the news of a bipartisan agreement for a more than $1 trillion dollar infrastructure bill, and a potential reconciliation package of over $6 trillion, infrastructure spending is finally on the horizon. As the debate continues over how much money should be spent, what it should be spent on, where the money should come from, and whether “pay-fors” are needed at all, (shout out MMTers); there is one source of information that members of both parties love to cite, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card.

It is rare to make it through an article, committee hearing, or press conference on infrastructure without hearing about our national grade of a “D” for our dams, a “B” for our rail, or an overall grade of a C- for our infrastructure. But while our nation’s roads, pipes, bridges, and dams are clearly in bad shape, perhaps worthy of that C- grade, there is very little quality data behind these assertions. Our infrastructure data deserves an F.

The ASCE as a non-profit professional organization should not be responsible for providing Congress with accurate information on our nation’s infrastructure. Put another way by comedian John Oliver, asking the ASCE to grade our infrastructure is like “having the state of our nation’s tennis balls assessed by the American Society of Golden Retrievers.”

Let’s take the ASCE grade of a “D” for our nation’s road infrastructure and peel back the layers. The ASCE’s “D” grade utilizes figures from TRIP, a private non-profit research agency based in D.C. that is funded by insurance companies, auto manufacturers, and other business involved in highway and transit engineering. TRIP publications on road condition rely on data provided by State and Federal Highway Administrations for assessing the physical condition of roads using a measurement known as the Pavement Condition Index (PCI). Far from being a perfect measurement, PCI is in the eye of the beholder as it is a 1 through 100 condition assessment ranking often determined from the passenger seat of a moving vehicle. Modern technology has allowed for much more accurate and repeatable measurements of pavement condition that should be mandated for this type of data collection. (See: RoadBotics as an example)

More troubling than usage of PCI is the use of State and Federal road data as a proxy for determining an overall grade for the country. 77% of all roads in the country are local roads. That means the data collected by State DOT’s and the FHWA, analyzed by TRIP, and published by the ASCE is missing information on more than three quarters of the asset they claim to be measuring. Our roads may be worthy of a “D” grade (perhaps even worse), but that “D” does not tell us what is broken, where, and how much it will cost to fix and maintain.

So maybe the ASCE data is just good for a qualitative overview of the state of our infrastructure and Government agencies have the raw data to back it up. Maybe the State’s do? Surely local government’s responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of their critical infrastructure know it’s condition and repair needs? Nope, it’s turtles all the way down, and turtles, I am sad to report, are not infrastructure.

A turtle laying on a turtle, laying on a turtle.
“Turtles all the way down” is an expression of the problem of infinite regress. The saying alludes to the mythological idea of a World Turtle that supports a flat Earth on its back. It suggests that this turtle rests on the back of an even larger turtle, which itself is part of a column of increasingly large turtles that continues indefinitely. *In this picture, turtles could be considered infrastructure.*

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