INFRASTRUCTURE CONUNDRUM

In all but the newest communities in America today, people are stumbling on sidewalks, bouncing on potholes, holding their breath on bridges and in tunnels, crossing the street away from tall brick buildings and generally gritting their teeth all the time with the courage normally reserved for scary movies.

The cause of all this stress and anxiety is pretty well summed up as a broad and deep infrastructure problem. Some of these roads, railroads, sidewalks, bridges and tunnels date as far back as the early 1900’s, when a great expansion of public transportation was underway as America moved from rural to urban homes. In the main, they were well-conceived and built with quality materials with a lot of well-directed labor and they justly carried the good intention of lasting a long time.

But then the rapid increase in the number of cars, the intense use of trains for both passengers and freight and a rapidly growing population put a strain on all those essential means of getting around.

By the 1930s, when the depression hit hard, there was far less money available for repairs and maintenance. Yet, FDR hit the accelerator for construction of new dams, electrification and other construction of necessary infrastructures to create jobs. This created even more new things that, naturally, needed regular maintenance.

The onset of WWII diverted labor and resources to war materials, so there was even less maintenance.

After WWII, President Eisenhower took an idea he had seen in the Germany he had defeated—an efficient network of super highways—and created the Interstate Highway System. Still more need for maintenance, but again no parallel provision for regular, consistent maintenance and updating.

It is amazing that this accumulated infrastructure of the last 100 years is still as capable as it is. In an age of disposable everything, products lasting a century are difficult to fathom. But decades of distractions from serious maintenance are taking an increasing toll in both minor inconveniences (water main breaks, road and rail delays) and preventable tragedies (bridge collapse, derailments, floods).

Many thoughtful leaders over the last 50 years have pushed for the need to address this infrastructure challenge. It has had occasional spurts and starts but nothing anywhere near sufficient. Why?

First, it is not sexy politically. When the George Washington Bridge was built people oohed and exclaimed with pride and pleasure. But when the second level was added, it was taken for granted. Even widening the streets doesn’t attract many votes for ambitious politicians.  Alfonse D’Amato, “Senator Pothole” to New Yorkers for almost two decades, retired more than 15 years ago, and no one has emerged in all those years to claim the title.

Second, there are always other, competing budget priorities for what everyone acknowledges is a massively expensive undertaking ($3.6 trillion by 2020 – www.infrastructurereportcard.org. Keeping up with health care and the many other very important societal needs crowds out new infrastructure funding, and the Highway Trust Fund – supported by taxes on gasoline that haven’t been raised since 1993 – teeters on the edge of insolvency, requiring semi-regular infusions of money from other parts of the federal budget.

Third, many, perhaps most, of the national politicians whose votes are essential to passing infrastructure rehabilitation expenditures do not live day to day with their noses in the problems. As elected officials, their lives are somewhat cosseted to protect them from everyday problems. In Washington DC they primarily see new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and underground trains. Perhaps they carry images in their heads of the new infrastructure in DC that surrounds them all the time. And, even at home they often have their local staff pick them up and drive them around so that they do not see many of the everyday obstacles their constituents encounter.

Perhaps a broad national movement urging the House of Representatives and Senate to put their 535 noses into the broad base of decaying infrastructure would help instruct that important gang on the imminence and gravity of the problem. For example, every congressional district and state could schedule several infrastructure site visits for every member of the House and Senate every month to call everyone’s attention to the problems everywhere.

Where infrastructure progress has been made in recent years it has most often been the result of collaborations among the three sectors: government, business and not for profit. Those collaborations are hard to achieve among the sectors because the sectors do not generally work well together as they speak different languages and have little trust and regard for each other. That is another issue that needs to be addressed. See: www.intersector.com.

In addition it would be a good idea going forward if some appropriate portion of the cost of all new infrastructure investments [ like the well-intended but sorrowfully insufficient Highway Fund] were set aside to create a fund in advance of inevitable maintenance and repair.

Something like that is done with Social Security and has strong public support to ensure that  funds will be there to pay retirement benefits when the time comes, which it inevitably does. Retirement is no more or less inevitable than the “sell by date” of infrastructure. When people retire they want to be just as safe as when they worked.

Cries for infrastructure maintenance have been like yelling into the wind.  Experience suggests no cause for optimism, so we settle for being realistic.

But, that does not mean we should stop yelling!!

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