Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Report Card

The American Society of Civil Engineers have come out with their 2009 "Report Card," an assessment by professional engineers of America's infrastructure. The Report Card found a nation that is poorly maintained and unable to meet current and future demands, and in many cases is unsafe.

The nation's composite Grade Point Average was a D. The worst grades (D-) were for drinking water, waste water, roads, levees, and our inland waterways. The "best" grade was a solitary C+ for solid waste. Since the last Report Card in 2005, the grades have not improved, and in 1997, the grade was D+.

Deteriorating conditions and inflation have added hundreds of billions to the total cost of the needed repairs and upgrades. ASCE's estimates that a $2.2 trillion investment is needed over the next 5 years, up from $1.6 trillion in 2005.

Although the infrastructure is the backbone of a healthy economy, it is so omnipresent that it is practically invisible. Largely out of sight, it resides underground as sewers, water and gas pipes, and electrical conduits. It is the roads that we drive, the water we drink, the power we consume, the control system for our airways, the safety net for our food and medicine. Infrastructure is essential to maintaining our quality of life, and in reviving the nation's fortunes.

Meanwhile, it snows in the Northeast, and the electric grid goes dark. Levees collapse, and swamp a great American city. A recently inspected steam pipe explodes, wiping out a block of Lexington Avenue in front of the Chrysler Building. And fully laden aircraft sit on tarmacs for 12 hours because the airlines and the airports don't have the infrastructure to keep up with demand.

The nation's infrastructure was built in two great bursts, one in the 1920s and '30s, and the other in the '50s and '60s. Since then, it has essentially been ignored. Jon Sinton, the founding president of Air America Radio, compares Americans to spoiled grandchildren who inherit a beautiful mansion but party every night with no thought to maintenance and upkeep.

It takes a tragedy as horrible as a freeway bridge collapse in a major American city to get our attention. Before the collapse, Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of Minnesota, vetoed an $8 billion infrastructure bill in 2005, so the Legislature went back to work and cut it in half. Still, the governor vetoed it, saying the state couldn't afford such an "overreaching" program. But somehow he found a half-billion dollars for a baseball stadium.

"Government is not the solution," Ronald Reagan said in his 1980 inaugural, "Government is the problem." His political descendants, the Grover Norquists of the world, want to starve government until it is "small enough to drown in a bathtub." Their legacy is the squandering of our inherited infrastructure, refusing to raise taxes for anything – not even war – and privatizing the pivotal underpinnings of society. So we are now entering into a troubling and absurd conversation on whether we should privatize the public infrastructure, one of the neo–cons' goals. The dollars are calculable; but the long-term effect of having for-profit companies running everything from prisons to roadways is not.

So we had a summer with the most delays in the history of commercial air travel; a ruptured steam pipe; a multiple-fatality bridge collapse – and it took a near collapse of our economy to get Congress to finally pass a meaningful infrastructure bill, in the form of a stimulus package. And yet the House Republicans refuse en masse to sign it, saying that the failed policies of the Bush Administration - tax cuts - are what's needed (i.e., more of the same old tired policies).

Let's hope that Congress puts childish things aside and finally allocated the money we so desperately need to repair our mansion before the next major hurricane, the next power outage, the next air disaster, or the next collapsed bridge.

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