Who Needs Infrastructure, Anyway?
Vermont’s independent Senator (and presidential candidate) Bernie Sanders loves to tell this story. Some years back, he was watching with some city officials as a burst water main was being dug up. “Do you know when this main was put in?” one of them asked him. No, he didn’t. “Right after the war.” “Which war?” “The Civil War.” It’s one of nearly countless examples of deteriorating infrastructure in the richest country on Earth.
In 2011 the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated it would cost $3 Trillion just to bring everything up to code — gas, water, and sewer lines, roads, highways, bridges, rail, and the electrical grid. I would add education to that list, because it’s our intellectual infrastructure. Businesses want an educated work force; it saves them money in training and leads to more productivity. Why have we neglected all of this? Federal, state, county and city governments all answer, “Maintenance costs money, and we can’t afford it.”
A microcosm of the problem can be seen in a March 14, 2014 article by the UK’s Guardian: “New York’s Dangerously Old Public Infrastructure.” The previous week a gas main explosion had flattened two apartment buildings, killing seven and injuring 60 more. That main was 127 years old. Let’s see, 2014 minus 127, that’s 1887! 60% of Con Edison’s gas lines are made of unprotected steel or cast iron, outmoded leak-prone materials. 15% of the city’s 6800 miles of water mains are over 100 years old, which has led to an average of 400 water main ruptures a year, on average, since 1998. 11% of New York City’s 162 bridges are over 100 years old. Each day, 2.7 million cars drive over the 47 bridges rated either “structurally deficient,” (like the I-35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2007), or “fracture critical.” The later term engineers use for a bridge in which the failure of a single span, beam, or joint will likely lead to total collapse. That’s what happened to the I-5 Skagit River Bridge in Washington State in 2013. A truck’s oversized load banged into a beam, and down she came. Miraculously, no one died in that one. But back to New York City. 43% of Manhattan’s roads and streets are rated substandard, and of the 19,000 miles of roads in the metropolitan area, the state’s Department of Transportation rates 30.4% in fair or poor condition.
That’s all from one major city, and the story is the same across the country. The federal Department of Transportation says that about 65% of U.S. roads are in substandard condition, and a whopping 25% of the nation’s bridges need to be replaced altogether. Meanwhile, the federal highway trust fund was due to run out this past May 31st. Congress kicked the can down the road with a two month extension. Highway and public transit construction and maintenance have been funded by a gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon. The states pay for that and are reimbursed by the federal government. That tax was last raised in 1993. Six states have already halted construction or maintenance projects while the transportation bill is stalled. And raising taxes of any kind is a mortal sin to the Republicans, who control Congress. They’ve all had to sign millionaire lobbyist Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge, which basically says they can’t ever vote for a tax increase for anything, ever. Around 30 states now have a law in their Constitution mandating a supermajority of 67% on any tax increase.
On May 12th an Amtrak train from Washington, D.C. to New York derailed in Philadelphia, going over 100 mph on a 50 mph curve, killing 8 and injuring about 200. A technology called Positive Train Control is available now and would have prevented that, but it would cost from $9-12 billion to have it installed on all Amtrak trains. Instead, the very next day, the House cut $252 million from Amtrak’s budget. Senator Rand Paul said Amtrak has never been profitable and should be privatized. This underlines a central conservative view; they don’t believe in the concept of the commons, the public good, which is what infrastructure is. They are unable to distinguish between spending and investing; they’re penny wise and pound foolish. And it is profitable, in that it facilitates commerce. Conversely, when it fails, it costs all of us. For several days after the accident, Amtrak in the Northeast corridor was halted for several days, costing $100 million per day in lost commerce. I have already mentioned lost revenues by states delaying projects. The AAA estimates that clogged roads and potholes cost each American driver an average of $324 each in wasted fuel and auto repairs. So not repairing infrastructure may save money in the short run, but it really costs us in the bigger picture.
There’s a comic irony in the idea that the richest country in the world has a third world infrastructure, due mainly to shortsightedness in our elected officials. High-speed rail runs all through Europe, but we can’t get it built here. China’s high-speed mag-lev trains, which are actually levitated magnetically, average 268 mph. Japan just tested a mag-lev train at 374 mph. Our idea of high-speed trains average about 70 mph. It’s embarrassing. Why can’t we have nice infrastructure like other developed countries? Is it just a lack of political will? No, actually, it is political will that is working against us. The Republicans will do anything, and I do mean anything, to allow government to even appear useful. Do you remember a few years ago when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancelled a tunnel project under the Hudson River. It would have vastly improved traffic to and from New York City, and the federal government would have financed nearly all of it. Why would Christie be against it? Because it would have facilitated commerce, therefore boosting the economy. and we can’t have that. It’s more than their hatred of this black President, it is government itself that they’ve been taught to hate (thanks, Ronald Reagan). They would rather hand all government functions over to the private sector. The idea of the public commons sounds too much like collectivism, and that sounds too much like socialism.
So we can forget about doing anything about our infrastructure. There will be more gas mains exploding, killing and injuring people. More bridges will collapse, killing and injuring more people. With the nation’s rail infrastructure in the shape it’s in, with more than ever trains carrying coal and oil, look for more derailments and exploding tank cars. There’s even a name in the national vernacular for them now — bomb trains. Isn’t that great?
Aw, who needs infrastructure, anyway? People can walk, it healthier. And we can carry everything in bundles on our heads, like they do in Africa or India. Oh, only women do that, you say? Wonderful! We’ll only have to pay 76% on the dollar! Who needs bridges? We’ll just take one of those little raft ferries that will spring up everywhere. Look at all the new jobs we’ll create for ferry men and women. People can ride bikes. Oh, that’s right, they need roads, too. But horses don’t! We’ll create more new jobs for horse ranchers and breeders. And what goes with horses? Buggies. And what do you need to drive a horse and buggy? Buggy-whip! We’ll revive a whole new industry, more new jobs. In the winter, cross country skiing is a great cardiovascular workout. We can wash our clothes by beating them on the rocks down by the river. You do have a river nearby, don’t you? And we can just do our business in a bucket and toss it out on the street, like they did in the Middle Ages. The rain will wash it away, and so what if there’s an occasional plague.
What about when the electrical grid goes down? Well, apart from the total meltdown of America’s 104 nuclear reactors, we’ll be back to more primitive methods of communication, like smoke signals. With all the pollution in the air, what’s a little more smoke? And who needs the internet? We can go back to a couple of Campbell’s soup cans with a string attached. Good luck trying to take a selfie with it.. As I seem to remember, it worked a lot better if you waxed the string.