Pay Now or Really Pay Later!

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2013 Report Card on the US Infrastructure is an appalling “D+.” As bad as that rating is, it is actually a narrow improvement over 2009’s rank of “D.” However, before the eternally optimistic begin to applaud this trifling improvement, the recent collapse of a bridge on Interstate-5 (the main artery connecting Seattle with the Canadian border) should continue to serve as a warning at just how insufficient our national system of roads, bridges, power grids, drainage systems, airports, etc., is. Amazingly, no one was killed in Washington state after the I-5 incident, but the same can’t be said when in 2007 a span over I-35 in Minneapolis collapsed resulting in thirteen fatalities. Both of these bridges had previously been noted for deficiencies by officials. Those bridges aren’t so unusual either. The ASCE estimates that across the United States 1 in 9 bridges is “structurally deficient.” 

It was sheer tragedy when the outdated and insufficient levees in New Orleans were breached during Hurricane Katrina. The subsequent flooding resulted in billions of dollars worth of damage and hundreds of deaths. Gregory DiLoreto, president of the ASCE, said in a March broadcast of NPR’s All Things Considered that, even after Herculean efforts to improve New Orleans’s coastal defenses, approximately 100,000 miles of other levees are more than five decades old, and only intended to protect farmland and crops from ordinary flooding. 

Even when death doesn’t enter the picture, millions of Americans each day sit in traffic on antiquated and potted roads, experience frequent power grid blackouts due to overburdened systems, and depend on water from worn pipes. At all levels of government, the maintenance, replacement, and improvement of the facilities, services, and installations used by our fellow citizens every day is simply not enough.
In 2009 the ASCE recommended a 5-year national investment at a cost of $2.2 trillion. Of course, that investment didn’t take place as tax-averse politicians decided to kick the can down the road rather than do the right thing. While it’s natural to glaze over when the word “trillions” is mentioned, what is the alternative? More inaction and more tragedies? 

What to do? At the Federal level the Federal Highway Trust Fund is supported by the Federal Gas Tax, but the rates haven’t been raised in years. Congress has had to cobble funds together this term to merely keep the funding solvent. Given the realities of the Great Recession, politicians have been quick to find any solution, however short-sighted, to avoid raising taxes. Former governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell, interviewed on the same All Things Considered segment may have put it best when he said, “It’s because of this literally crazed idea that spending money is automatically bad…We have to invest in our own growth. Businesses invest in their own growth and it pays off and so do we.” (“U.S. Gets Low Marks on Infrastructure from Engineer’s Group”; March 19, 2013 episode).  

Public/Private partnerships may offer some solution since they have had some minor successes and are a much easier “sell.” However, there are obvious problems with the selling off of the public’s infrastructure system to the highest bidder. By doing so the public may lose the final say in how roads will be maintained, what tolls could be charged for bridges, and what type of policies these private companies will have toward their employees. Companies may also be willing to invest only in the well-traveled routes, allowing others to decline if they were unprofitable. 

Will public/private partnerships include bidding by foreign companies too? If so, what could be the effects on our national security? The worst outcome of privatization might be the government effectively reneging on a key aspect of the social compact with the citizenry by neglecting its role of last resort in ensuring fairness in the provision of a well-planned and safe infrastructure for all.

Many elected officials seemingly lack the political courage to raise taxes or other revenues necessary to address maintenance or new projects. Avoiding responsibility for such a critical, if un-glamorous, aspect of public policy will only continue the process of adding to the costs, and ensure the likelihood of more deaths and injuries. Acting now will keep the costs of repair and obsolescence from growing, and keep us all safe. A good benchmark might be for the Federal Government to spend at least 1% of GDP on infrastructure. Similar benchmarks should be attempted at the state, regional, and metropolitan levels where there is more local knowledge on needs and available resources. Winding down the ill-advised wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will hopefully free up as much as a trillion dollars as well. Finally, the National Commission on Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing’s recommendation to increase the gas tax should be heeded.

While we figure out how to improve the nation’s shoddy infrastructure, is there a chance to refashion our living spaces and transportation network in a more sustainable manner? That’s just the question that Diana Lind of the magazine Next American City focuses on. Lind notes that in the post-WWII era the nation began ripping up the transportation infrastructure based on rail systems and replaced it with highways and car-friendly suburbs. Many social and environmental concerns can be traced back to this development. A car-dependent culture like ours has fueled sprawl, long commutes requiring more fuel, more sedentary lifestyles, and more social isolation. Promoting a transportation system that costs less, that provides for walking and biking options, along with more public transit links, may lead to more compact communities with increased civic engagement, better health, and fewer infrastructural complications. 

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk is a National Committee member of the American Solidarity Party. 

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