After airport delays, lessons on failing infrastructure

Ashley Halsey III / The Washington Post. /


Published Apr 28, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

WASHINGTON — It was a quasi-disaster for people who fly and easy pickings for television crews working the surly airport crowds who seethed as thousands of flights were delayed for hours on end.

By the weekend, however, the heads of all those angry passengers rested on pillows at their intended destinations. Wall Street showed no great concern that commerce had been put at risk. The aviation system still worked despite cuts intended to save $200 million.

It just didn’t work as well as it could. And therein lies a lesson: Americans want better infrastructure, but they will muddle along just fine in the 21st century when they don’t get it.

It will be lost on those who pick over the week’s news on the Sunday talk shows, debating winners and losers. Some will say sequestration gave the White House no choice but to furlough 1,500 air traffic controllers each day. Others will say the administration opted to mess up the aviation system as a ploy to pressure Republicans into ending sequestration.

But the more relevant questions are how close the country’s infrastructure is to actual collapse — and whether the public cares.

On Monday, across town from the U.S. Capitol, a group of experts on the way things work (and the reasons they don’t) will gather for their annual gnashing of teeth.

They are think-tank analysts and former U.S. transportation secretaries, and they will ask themselves why several years of dire forecasts have not pierced the general public’s awareness or created a sense of alarm that things are falling apart.

The think tanks have churned out piles of research that connect dollar signs in the billions and trillions to all manner of consequences. It boils down a simple fact and equally simple math: post-World War II America is wearing out. It will cost a lot of money to fix.

Things people count on — lights that come on, toilets that flush, fully stocked stores — may become less reliable. Things that drive people mad — traffic congestion, high prices, flight delays — are likely to become worse.

For the experts who will meet Monday, the resolution of the past week’s airport delay saga provides a teachable moment.

To the transportation experts, Congress’ quick fix — to shift $253 million, mostly from the Federal Aviation Administration’s airport improvement funds, to put furloughed air traffic controllers back to work — was a classic example of shortsighted thinking. A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the United States should instead invest more than $7 billion a year in 29 large hub airports over five years.

Failure to invest, the study concluded, would result in just the sort of delays that passengers experienced last week.

“The federal government has largely failed to maintain a system of aviation facilities, the electrical grid, sewer and water systems, and interstate highways that once was the envy of the world,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said at a transportation hearing last week. “That is a claim that is harder to make today, and its status and condition continues to deteriorate. A quick look at the national situation right now reveals a lack of appreciation and leadership from Congress.”

Whether people grasp the catchphrase “crumbling infrastructure” or not, there isn’t much agreement on what to do about it.

Competing studies last week gave life to that, and to the more significant fact that people expect things to stay the same but don’t care to pay to make it so. In one, 81 percent of drivers told AAA that the government should be doing more to improve roadways; 61 percent agreed that it would take more spending.

That survey came out Friday, four days after Gallup released a poll that said 66 percent of Americans opposed a 20-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax that is the primary source of federal highway funding, and the most immediate place to turn to boost spending.

FAA update

The Federal Aviation Administration said Saturday it has suspended all employee furloughs and that traffic facilities will begin returning to regular staffing levels this evening. The furloughs — which started to hit air traffic controllers this past week, causing flight delays that left thousands of travelers frustrated and furious — were fallout from the $85 billion in automatic-across-the-board spending cuts this spring. The bill, passed on Friday, allows the FAA to move as much as $253 million within its budget to areas that will allow it to prevent reduced operations and staffing.

— The Associated Press