Thursday, February 18, 2010

The US Infrastructure: What's Wrong with Us?

The United State's infrastructure is terrifying. Terrifying not only because a plethora of disasters and catastrophes could happen in a heartbeat, but because the citizens of the US are completely unaware of the scope of the problem and their representatives are doing nothing to improve the situation.

This is the real situation: infrastructure is the catalyst and sustainer of economic activity. Trade cannot occur where roads do not exist. Jobs cannot be held if electricity and running water are not deliverable. These are simple facts, and yet the US Government has repeatedly cut funding from servicing its infrastructure. From memory I believe the investment of US funds into infrastructure in the 1960s was around 9%. (Unfortunately I do not have the textbook to cite the actual number). Today, it's around 3%. This sharp decline in spending can be seen across the country: the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis, the failing of the levees in New Orleans, the dilapidated sewer system in Saint Louis, the crumbling bridges in New York and is clear that this country is sending a message, and that message is that they don't care about sustaining its infrastructure.

A good parallel of this is the great city of Rome. In its prime during the Roman Empire it was considered the New York City of today. It was the cultural destination of the world, and it had the finest infrastructure the world had ever seen. The mighty Colosseum had been erected, the great system of aqueducts served the citizens, the roads were intricately planned...yet at one point, the city began to move its focus from these kind of improvements, and look at what happened to it.

In tough economic times, the easy thing to do is push aside infrastructure investments. First off, their value is often not realized, since a bridge or sewer system is rarely looked at as providing tangible utility. (Which itself is an egregious problem, but I won't go there). But we can't have this mentality. When it comes to infrastructure, we can't have a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality, because it will break. And when it does, there will be hell to pay.

Imagine the northeast corridor without power for three weeks. Imagine an entire metropolitan area without access to clean drinking water because the sewage system failed. Consider a bridge that serves 100,000 people a day, such as the Tappan Zee, collapsing and cutting an artery into the largest city in our country. These are the real, entirely viable issues that our politicians are sweeping under the carpet.

Fortunately, not all of our friends in the Government are ignoring the issue. The Governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, is featured in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times titled, "What's Wrong With Us?", and it questions how long we can continue on as a nation without reinvesting in our infrastructure system. It's nice to know that at least one of them gets it.

Gov. Ed Rendell likes to tell a story that goes back to his days as mayor of Philadelphia.

As he recalled, the city had a long cold snap with about a month and a half of below-freezing temperatures. Then, abruptly, the mercury rose into the 60s, he said, “and 58 of our water mains broke, causing all sorts of havoc.”

The pipes were old. Some were ancient. “My water people told me that some had been laid in the 19th century,” said Mr. Rendell, “and they were laid shallow, without much protection. So with any radical changes in temperature, they were susceptible to breaking. We had a real emergency on our hands.”

Infrastructure, that least sexy of issues, is not just a significant interest of Ed Rendell’s; it’s more like a consuming passion. He can talk about it energetically and enthusiastically for hours and days at a time. He has tried to stop the hemorrhaging of Pennsylvania’s infrastructure, and he travels the country explaining how crucially important it is for the United States to rebuild a national infrastructure landscape that has deteriorated so badly that it is threatening the nation’s economic viability.

Two years ago, a bridge inspector who had stopped for lunch in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood happened to glance up at a viaduct that carries Interstate 95 over the neighborhood. He noticed a 6-foot crack in a 15-foot column that was supporting the highway. His sandwich was quickly forgotten. Two miles of the highway had to be closed for three days for emergency repairs to prevent a catastrophe from occurring.

These kinds of problems are not peculiar to Pennsylvania. New Orleans was lost for want of an adequate system of levees and floodwalls. Lawrence Summers, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, tells us that 75 percent of America’s public schools have structural deficiencies. The nation’s ports, inland waterways, drinking water and wastewater systems — you name it — are hurting to one degree or another.

Ignoring these problems imperils public safety, diminishes our economic competitiveness, is penny-wise and pound-foolish, and results in tremendous missed opportunities to create new jobs on a vast scale.

Competitors are leaving us behind when it comes to infrastructure investment. China is building a network of 42 high-speed rail lines, while the U.S. has yet to build its first. Other nations are well ahead of us in the deployment of broadband service and green energy technology. We spend scandalous amounts of time sitting in traffic jams or enduring the endless horrors of airline travel. Low-cost, high-speed Internet access is a science-fiction fantasy in many parts of the United States.

The article goes into depth about troubles just his state is facing, much less the rest of the country. But his point is on target--while the rest of the world eclipses this country by constructing massive high-speed rail systems, efficient public transportation systems, renwable green energy and metropolitans with sustainability as a goal...we are just left in the dust. And if we don't do anything about it, we will remain behind, never with the chance to catch up.