A reader writes:

I am a civil engineer in a small firm (10 engineers).  We specialize in a particular area of chronically under-funded public infrastructure.  Right now, we are so busy that we have hired another engineer, and would hire two more if we were confident we wouldn’t have to let them go a year from now. The reason that we are hiring is because of the infrastructure bill – two of our clients recently got word from the feds that they can accelerate ‘out year’ projects if they have construction bids in hand within four months.

We are working overtime to get these projects ready to bid so that our clients don’t lose the desperately needed funding.  The engineer we are hiring was part of a mass layoff from a local firm that did mostly private development work (residential subdivisions and shopping centers) in our formerly booming region. 

Construction contractors are really hungry - for projects where we would usually get 2 or 3 bidders, we are now sometimes seeing in excess of 20.  Contractors are coming from out of state to bid on relatively small jobs they wouldn’t have touched a couple of years ago.  I hear rumors that contractors are bidding jobs with no profit built in just so they can make payments on their construction equipment.

I can tell you with complete confidence based on my years of experience that more public spending on public infrastructure is long overdue.  I was amused to read an op-ed last week by the publisher of Forbes magazine who characterized the stimulus bill as “backwards looking” because the bill is “overwhelmed by ‘shovel ready’ projects aimed at school-building improvement, road repair and so forth…”.  He asked “Is a shovel the right symbol for the 21st century?”   

How utterly clueless can you be?  Just wait until the 19th century sewer main in your town fails and  raw sewage pours into your creeks; or a piece of crumbling pavement on the 40 year old runway you are landing on gets sucked into a jet engine; or another bridge fails during rush hour traffic because minimal maintenance funds have been available for years.  While 20% or so of our GDP was going to the financial services sector, the ACTUAL STUFF that we walk on, drive on, live in, work in, drink from and put our waste into has been crumbling. 

The reason that there aren't more failures is because engineers are historically damn good at including a ‘factor of safety’ in their designs, so that public facilities like these last beyond their typical useful life.  (And also because competent people with actual shovels have helped to build them well.)  The arrogance of people who have done nothing for their livelihood but move other people’s money around is simply breathtaking. 

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