Friday, February 19, 2016

American Infrastructure: The Past Year and a Half

In July of 2014 I posted a rough view of how a new Works Public Administration, or WPA, program might be put together.  The need for improvements in the areas of roads, bridges, ports, airports, cellular and Wi-Fi service, train and bus stations, and enhancements to their operations, along with many other worthy secondary areas, was large, growing, and was pushing the United States away from greatness.

What has happened since then?

The month after that post, The Week, a magazine usually devoted to summaries of material published elsewhere, printed “Inside America’s Crumbling Infrastructure.”  The piece summarized what had happened up to that point, such as the Seattle, Minneapolis, and Lake Champlain bridge collapses, and mentioned the American Society of Civil Engineers’ overall 2013 grade (their next assessment is scheduled for 2017) of D+.  It included the fall of our 2012 infrastructure spending to 1.5%, the lowest in 20 years, and gave a global infrastructure rank to the United States of 14th.  Other problems listed here, which had received less national news than the bridge failures above, included water treatment plants, sewer and water mains, and pipes in general.

Four months ago, Business Insider published a list of “the 11 countries with the best infrastructure around the world.”  The United States did make that, in the final spot, getting first overall in available airline seats, fifth for general air transport, but 14th for road quality.  The ten countries doing better, top to bottom, were Hong Kong, Singapore, Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain.

That same month of October 2015, Fortune magazine had a piece asserting through its title that “an investment in America’s infrastructure could cost taxpayers nothing.”  It included the conclusion that simply borrowing, as it put it, hundreds of billions of dollars at current 2% interest rates, would “boost gross domestic product by far more than it costs, and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.”  It mentioned poor road conditions costing city motorists $700 to $1,000 extra apiece per year, on additional repairs, fuel, and wear and tear, with, as well, time lost to otherwise unnecessary detours and lower speeds.  According to the article’s authors Sheila Tschinkel and Marcelle Arak, $18 billion spent this way could not only raise GDP by $29 billion but would add 216,000 jobs.  That last number looks at first glance too optimistic, but is worthy of investigation and more serious consideration.

A fourth piece appeared only this week, in USA Today.  It reported the results of an American Road and Transportation Builders Association report, which found that over 58,000 bridges, out of 600,000-plus nationally, were structurally deficient as of last year.  In our area, they include the Brooklyn Bridge, and some of the over 4,700 in one of the worst-off states, Pennsylvania.  While Congress accepted a $305-billion bill for highway work in December, that would leave about $115 billion more needed for other bridges. 

Both Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have made a major infrastructure project part of their platforms.  I am disappointed that Republicans have not done the same.  After all, it is not only their country also, but improving our roads, stations, power, ports, and more to truly world standards would coincide with their passion for American exceptionalism.  That needs to be more than a groundless belief, and is endangered when things as expected as highway speed and smoothness and passage through and into our largest cities drop further from modern world standards.  It can be done, and it must be done - we may be apart on the conditions of the project, including how much its workers should be paid, but we can work through those things.  There will be no better time to start.    

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