Will The Stimulus Keep Us Safe?

It's common knowledge these days that the stimulus will rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. $111 billion of the $787 billion package are pledged to the combined causes of science and infrastructure; modernized highways, bridges, and dams are supposed to be a sort of windfall from the economic crisis. The specter of the Minneapolis bridge collapse loomed as the stimulus was debated in Congress.

But there's no guarantee the most crumbling pieces of our infrastructure--those that pose the greatest public safety risks--will be the ones to get fixed, according to Col. Bob Stephan, formerly the Department of Homeland Security's assistant secretary for intrastructure protection and now a risk management consultant at Dutko Worldwide.

The Recovery Act itself has no requirement for a safety-risk-based priority of infrastructure projects, Stephan points out, and he thinks it could be a problem.

"Except in a couple areas...the law remains disappointingly silent on the notion of using risk to guide infrastructure spending," Stephan told me in a recent interview. "So what I'm deathly afraid of is that we've spent lots of time, energy, resources to identify where the major risks are...you could have the state and local folks with super good intent applying for money to fund projects that don't necessarily reach a national level of importance, or some projects that have a national level of importance will kind of fall through the cracks because there's no risk requirement."

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Pieces of infrastructure that pose the greatest safety risks should be attended to first, Stephan says, though he doesn't argue against funding any of county-level projects like smaller roads, parks, and community centers.

"As a first cut, we ought to cover down on those things that represent the most critical priority national infrastructures first," he told me. His suggestion: for federal agencies like the Departments of Transportation, Homeland Security, and Energy, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency "build in risk-based criteria to the direct funds that they push out the door" in addition to federal grant money.

The state of U.S. infrastructure, as it stands, does pose a safety risk, Stephan said when I asked him about it. "Take a look at the Minnesota bridge collapse of 2007--I think the answer is yes." Older bridges, dams, and municipal water systems--some over 100 years old--account for some of that risk, he said.

One would hope that common sense will guide the stimulus dollars to the nation's riskiest roads, bridges, and dams.

A Department of Transportation spokeswoman told me that "state departments of transportation are better suited than the federal government to understand the condition of their transportation system" because they own and operate highways, including interstates. Transportation legislation signed by President George W. Bush requires that states formulate plans to improve transportation, which helps formalize priorities.

The Department of the Interior, which controls some of the nation's dams and water systems, says its stimulus dollars will get spent at the federal level (Interior-controlled lands are generally federal lands) and that safety risk is one of the criteria its bureaus and internal stimulus task force will use to prioritize projects.

Transit and port security grants are required to be doled out based on risk, and the majority of Department of Homeland Security grants use "an evolving risk methodology to allocate awards," according to the Office of Management and Budget. The Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, in fact, requires DHS to prioritize its grants based on risk from terrorism "and other types of threat determined relevant by the Administrator."

And there are, of course, factors other than public safety to be taken into account for infrastructure spending. Energy efficiency, for instance, is a big one: while green energy spending through the Department of Energy could lead to new infrastructure, the goal is different from keeping the public safe.

But Stephan sees a broader problem in infrastructure modernization: namely, that lines of responsibility can be unclear.

"My fear is that [state and local officials] will think someone else is doing that, someone else is responsible for putting that application in, when in fact nobody might pick up the ball," Stephan told me. "Maybe they'll fix a local bridge that's in their jurisdiction...and they're gonna say, well, I hope somebody from the federal government has really got their eyes on that dam, because I'm gonna focus on this thing over here."

Stephan says the Obama administration should codify a risk requirement. It has not done so, at least not in the top-level, set-in-stone way Stephan wants to see--a regulation that would essentially do what he wishes Congress had done in the first place.

It will likely be years before we can judge whether Stephan's fears are warranted--whether such a regulation is/was needed, whether it would be practical to implement one, and whether the stimulus money will have its advertised effect on the nation's infrastructure.