The Cost Today. The Cost Tomorrow.

Mike Chollet

Think about the last time you bought new tires for your car. Unless you are really into cars, that event was probably preceded by a length of time where you knew the purchase was necessary but, due to the cost and inconvenience, was postponed for a too-long period where you knew you were maybe in some danger but still put off the inevitable. (In Congress, this period of time before actually doing something is called, “Admiring the problem”.)

Once the new tire purchase project was complete, you were most of a thousand dollars less well-off and, aside from vanquishing the nagging feeling of needing to do something you didn’t really want to do, you didn’t really get the pleasure of having spent the money on something more fun. Money spent on maintenance; things like new tires, roofs, HVAC systems are equal parts important and unsexy. But we do these things to avoid even more cost and inconvenience down the road. Being able to plan and save up for such expenditures always trumps unpleasant surprises.

It’s easy to see why maintenance and infrastructure are so easily deferred by elected officials. Such expenditures are rarely popular with the tax paying electorate and the practical gains are generally hidden. No one ever arrives at home thinking, “Awesome, my car did not disappear into a giant pothole today!”

Unlike the rest of us, politicians have the luxury – the imperative actually – of deferring necessary expenditures in exchange for another term or two in office. Who else is rewarded for such short sightedness?

Love him or hate him, our current president is pushing forward the boldest infrastructure plan since the 1930’s. Regardless of the final price tag this will greatly benefit the construction industry. Not only will the country be able to address long neglected matters of maintenance and safety, the vast bulk of expenditures will directly benefit the building community.

Hopefully, we will have the workforce required to get the big jobs ahead done. Baby boomers aging out of the workforce are not being replaced in sufficient numbers. Estimates are that companies will have to double the number of workers now being hired to address the tidal wave of work coming our way. A recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey found that 88 percent of commercial construction contractors reported moderate-to-high levels of difficulty finding skilled workers, and more than a third had to turn down work because of labor deficiencies.

A number of local and national companies and organizations are developing programs to attract and retain young people to the construction industry. These efforts are to be lauded. The importance of assisting these efforts cannot be overstated. 

A recent New York Times article tells us that “Community colleges, which offer a variety of vocational training programs, have suffered steep declines in enrollment. A recent estimate from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that community colleges were the hardest hit among all colleges, with enrollment declining by 9.5 percent this spring. More than 65 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment losses this spring occurred at community colleges, according to the report.” Remember this when considering things like the propriety of money for colleges in the upcoming infrastructure bill.

Our lead article this issue highlights work done on the Blanchette Bridge which connects St. Charles and St. Louis Counties. This 43-year old bridge handles an average of 165,000 vehicles per day and is arguably the area’s busiest bridge. Its longest span is 480 feet. Its westbound width is 60 feet with an eastbound width of 68 feet. The last major repairs to the eastbound bridge were joint replacements done in 2006, according to MoDOT. Projected to take two years to complete renovations, the job was completed in just nine months. The total cost was $33M.

Yes, thirty-three million dollars is a sizeable sum of money but, for scale, just one trillion dollars would fund the similar renovation of more than 33,000 other bridges.

There is a growing sentiment in the country that, now that we will not spending $300 million dollars per day in Afghanistan, that money can be put to better use at home attending to needs that have been long neglected. Everyone who knows what Washington is capable of, understands that a new tornado of cash will always be subject to the money grab of special interests. Hopefully cooler heads may be able to focus spending on actual needs.

I am in my late sixties now and have a lot of discomfort about how my generation has governed the country and conducted big business. Ours has been a privileged generation which has focused too much on the “what’s in it for me”. Hopefully we can pivot to a position which addresses current needs with greater emphasis on the future. Dealing with those needs while being appropriately fiscally responsible will benefit our industry and the country on the whole.

The work can be done now while the federal government is committed to do what is necessary and the cost of money is cheap or we can put it off until neither of these is true.

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