OP-ED: Infrastructure, Hard and Soft
December 15, 2021
Every once in a while the public’s attention is drawn to an issue with a name that few people understand and many cannot even pronounce; enter “infrastructure”. Whatever it is, we are now going to spend 1.2 trillion dollars on it in the next few years so perhaps it’s time to think about it. Since “infra” means “below” I think about infrastructure as the foundation on which our society is built.
There are two types of infrastructure, commonly called hard and soft. I was taught the difference between them by a mechanic when I was complaining about his $25 bill. “It might seem like a lot,” he said”, “It’s only $5 for fixing it, but it’s $20 for knowing how.” The “hard” part was the tractor he was working on, the “soft” part was the knowledge he had gained through a career as a mechanic.
So, the Infrastructure and Jobs Investment Act addresses America’s hard infrastructure needs after many years of what can be called either “benign neglect” or “deferred maintenance”. Deferred maintenance is a nice term for saying we have enough money to pay for oil and gas to keep the old crate running, but not enough to prevent it from falling apart. It’s like a paint job that looked good and held everything together until everything inside the paint job collapsed, leaving only the hollow shell of the paint job to stand for the machine. The once great Milwaukee Railroad which travelled the width of Montana until 1980 was a victim of purposely deferred maintenance in order to present a cosmetically acceptable bottom line to investors. They let the track get so bad that the trains were restricted to a speed of ten miles an hour from Miles City to Harlowton, 216 miles. Because of labor rules it took three crews to do what normally one would have done—if the train didn’t fall off the tracks, which often happened. While businesses employ deferred maintenance to sooth investors’ worries, governments use it to avoid incurring the public’s objections to raising fees or taxes to fix a problem and just let things slide.
The areas addressed by the bill include road and bridge construction and repair, air and rail transportation, drinking and wastewater systems and a myriad of other stuff. For a good look at why it’s needed you can go to infrastructurereportcard.org. That’s the state by state report of the American Society of Civil Engineers which regularly reviews the state of America’s infrastructure needs, One of their findings for Montana claims that Montanans incur an annual vehicle repair cost of $ 472 because of the poor condition of many highways in Montana. Overall, Montana gets a grade of C-.
The “soft”, or social, part of infrastructure is essentially what is required to create or continue a healthy workforce with education appropriate to the jobs available. This means adequate and affordable education, health care, childcare, and housing. The importance of these factors in a healthy economy is not always evident because we don’t always make the connections among them, but you can’t work when you’re sick, have to take care of your kids, or lack the skills needed for the current job market, and working becomes a real challenge when you’re living in your car because you can’t pay for housing. (Even so, between 15 and 25% of homeless people are estimated to have jobs.)
The spending on soft infrastructure, which is in the yet to be passed Build Back Better Act is more controversial because it does address the social aspect of America’s needs, on which there is partisan disagreement. But, look at it this way. There is a shortage of snowplow truck drivers in Montana and nationwide. As far as the hard infrastructure is concerned, there are plenty of snowplows, but without the soft infrastructure of trained and available drivers, the trucks aren’t much good, are they? You can have the best hard infrastructure of anyone but it’s not much good if you don’t have the people to run it.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator.