The politically (in)correct use of infrastructure

It’s a well-known fact that infrastructure can be ‘political’, especially in the US where funding has traditionally come from the public sector, which means politicians and lawmakers control the purse strings. Even today, with public-private partnership (PPP; P3) initiatives taking on a greater role, decisions are still dependent upon political will.

However, with the closure of two local access lanes on the Fort Lee, New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge (GWB) – a bridge that connects New York with New Jersey – and the ensuing revelations, we saw infrastructure being allegedly used as a political weapon.

The subsequent legislative and federal investigations that followed and are currently underway, the resignations (and one dismissal) of high-level public officials, and the flurry of subpoenas that has yet to settle, also show how infrastructure can function as a political boomerang.

Evidence to date suggests the lane closures may have been carried out as political retribution against the Mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse the re-election of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Serving people, creating jobs, supporting economic growth, and improving quality of life – these are all that roles infrastructure is well suited to. In the case of the George Washington Bridge, which first opened to traffic in 1931, the focus should arguably be on its upkeep and maintenance to keep safe the millions of motorists who regularly use it (in 2013 approximately 102 million vehicles crossed the bridge).

As Walter W. Wise, general president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, stated in a recent editorial on CNN.com: “As I see it, the real scandal here is in the question of how a critically vital piece of America’s infrastructure – the bridges that are our lifeline to jobs, hospitals and economic development – have been neglected for so long.”

He has a point. The jam that resulted from the closure of the access lanes may have arisen from exceptional circumstances. But the inconvenience and possible danger of using antiquated infrastructure is – far from being exceptional – a regular occurrence in the US. The GWB scandal cast a spotlight on this – and may, ironically therefore, have served a public purpose.