Watch closely any group involved in dealing with a disaster — let’s say, a fire company battling a structure fire — and you may catch the moment when they share a glance that says, “You know what, we’re not going to win this one.” Their conduct changes almost imperceptibly from “balls to the wall, we can do this,” to “watch where you step, and back away from the walls, she’s gonna burn to the ground.”
Such a moment may well have come this week for the people who still believe — or have believed since Donald Trump was elected president — that we are going to experience a Great Recovery of this country’s rotting roads and decrepit bridges, which will in turn create millions of jobs, restore the middle class, eliminate poverty, homelessness and cancer, save the economy and make it 1958 in America once more. And Mexico is going to pay for it. (Actually, candidate Trump promised $50 billion for the purpose, double Hillary Clinton’s proposed spending. But neither of them explained where they were going to get the money.)
No one questions that this massive construction program is not only necessary but urgent. Our entire economy, all of it, travels on the backs of 18-wheelers, and if anything at all interferes with their tightly scheduled travel, we are all in the soup, neck deep and right now. The American Society of Civil Engineers, the people who would do this work if they were hired, has been warning us for years about the deterioration. The Interstate Highway system (900,000 miles) and all its bridges (600,000) and overpasses, came with an expiration date stamped on them, just like so many quarts of milk. Their life expectancy was 50 years when they were built — 60 years ago.
The civil engineers are very civil when they try to tell us why their hair is on fire: “by 2024, the U.S. will face an infrastructure funding gap of $1.4 trillion.” It’s not in their nature to draw pictures of empty stores, food riots, endless lines for gasoline, and various other civil insults, because they don’t want to trigger the general panic that the situation deserves. Instead, we will just agree that it’s a heckuva problem, Brownie.
And now there’s hope, right? Maybe the Child President will remember his concern about the roads (infrastructure is way too long a word, get outta here) long enough to try to do something about them. Maybe his excellent Cabinet can come up with a way to pay for fixing them (Rex Tillerson could just write a check, but that would probably be a conflict of interest).
But here’s the thing. In a few weeks, this massive project won’t even be possible, even if Canada pays for it in cash. Because the largest asphalt plant in the United States is shutting down for lack of business. According to Bloomberg, Axeon Specialty Products is converting to other uses a plant in New Jersey capable of producing 50,000 barrels of asphalt per day. U.S. consumption of asphalt has been hovering below 350,000 barrels a day since 2009. To support a meaningful overhaul of the road system the county would need to manufacture at least an additional 200,000 barrels per day.
With Axeon’s New Jersey plant gone, there is no way that is going to happen. Even if Canada does pay for it. The engineers are looking at each other funny — it may be time to back away from those walls before they fall on us.