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Think Again: Collapsing Infrastructure? Who Knew?

SOURCE: AP/Paul Sancya

Crews clean up oil from a ruptured pipeline where Talmadge Creek meets the Kalamazoo River in Marshall Township, MI, July 30, 2010. Politics notwithstanding, America’s infrastructure is approaching a crisis point.

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Though it somehow felt all but forgotten by Thursday, this past Monday morning designated beltway oracle Mike Allen informed the wired political world that the idea “driving the day” would be President Barack Obama’s 10:50 a.m. Rose Garden statement on infrastructure investment, designed “to build support for the $50 billion ‘roads, railways and runways’ proposal he unveiled on Labor Day.”

Joining the president were Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood; a bevy of mayors; Norman Mineta, a Democrat and George W. Bush’s transportation secretary; and Samuel Skinner, a Republican and George H.W. Bush’s transportation secretary. The president discussed a new report on infrastructure investment from the Department of the Treasury with the Council of Economic Advisers. The report finds that 80 percent of the jobs directly created by investing in transportation infrastructure would be in the construction, manufacturing, and retail trade sectors. It also finds that infrastructure investments have high bang for the buck because construction costs are low due to underutilized resources.

It should surprise no one to see that most in the mainstream media saw fit to treat the issue as an almost purely political skirmish—cast exclusively in the narrative over the election-year fight over jobs. And the politicians played along.

According to The Wall Street Journal, “Obama has proposed the initiative as a way to create more jobs, but Republicans have opposed further infrastructure spending at a time of tight state and federal budgets.” Republicans have already signaled they will fight the plan. “If we’ve learned anything from the past 18 months, it’s that we can’t spend our way to prosperity,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said in September.

Infrastructure spending had been in the news the previous week, briefly. Paul Krugman pointed out that, “Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, canceled America’s most important current public works project, the long-planned and much-needed second rail tunnel under the Hudson River” despite the fact that less than a third of its cost was to be borne by New Jersey. (The rest would come, in roughly equal amounts, from the independent Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and from the federal government.)

The Nobel laureate economist and pundit termed Christie’s move “a destructive and incredibly foolish decision on multiple levels.” This view on infrastructure investment is supported by someone with whom Krugman rarely agrees: the economist and out-going top Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers. “You run a deficit both when you borrow money and when you defer maintenance that needs to be done,” he told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. “Either way, you’re imposing a cost on future generations.”

It’s not as if we can’t afford it. After all, both 2009 and 2010 have turned out to be record years on Wall Street. The three dozen top New York banks, investment banks, hedge funds, money-management firms, and securities exchanges prepared to pay out bonuses calculated by the Wall Street Journal at $139 billion and $144 billion respectively.

The problem is that as a society, we aren’t willing to pay for it. The politics notwithstanding, clearly America’s infrastructure is approaching a crisis point. A New York Times report last August (cited by Glenn Greenwald) points out:

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

And a July Wall Street Journal report notes that “paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue.”

Much of our physical infrastructure has corroded to the point of near collapse (or is collapsing). To pick one just example: On July 26, 2010, an oil pipeline burst outside of Battle Creek, Michigan, releasing more than a million gallons of oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. And an investigation by The Washington Independent found that over 70 percent of America’s natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines are now over 30 years old. This should surprise no one, alas.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, “More than 26%, or one in four, of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” a problem that would likely cost roughly $17 billion per year to repair, or almost twice what has been budgeted. One-third of America’s major roads are, the engineers tell us, “in poor or mediocre condition and 45 percent of major urban highways are congested.”

Our drinking water systems “face an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion to replace aging facilities.” Inland waterways, wastewater systems, and levees all rate a “D” or lower on the society’s infrastructure report card.

What’s more, this neglect at the federal level is matched by an equal lack of interest in these topics by the mainstream media. A valuable study by Jodi Enda in the American Journalism Review revealed an appalling apathy with regard to these issues on the part of virtually every major news organization. She noted, in relation to the oil spill, that before the spill occurred not a single editor or producer thought to call a reporter and say, “Hey, why not take a look at what’s up over at the Minerals Management Service?”

At the time virtually nothing had been recently written about the Minerals Management Service save its now infamous four-year sex scandal. According to MMS spokesman Nicholas Pardi, “there’s not a single reporter in the country who covers its activities full time.”

The result of this malign neglect is that post-Bush America is one disaster after another waiting to happen, all of which—when they do—will be laid at the feet of the current president regardless of whether addressing them is consistent with his policy agenda. We shouldn’t be surprised the next time it happens.

But we will be.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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