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.
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
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."