Blame Everyone for Infrastructure Ruin: Unethical, Irresponsible Priorities from Reagan to Obama

In the early Eighties, I oversaw an independent study funded by the Highway Users Federation and the National Chamber Foundation called “Transport Tomorrow,” exploring the immediate need for transportation infrastructure repair and expansion in all modes of transportation: roads, railway, waterway, and airports. In the process of learning how dire the need for massive construction and repair was if America’s future commercial needs were to be met, the study commission made a disturbing discovery: urban water and sewer systems were crumbling too. There was literally not enough money to fix all the roads, bridges, tunnels, water mains and sewer pipes that had to be fixed, and the consequences of not doing so would be economic paralysis and worse, disease and even social unrest.

In the face of this looming and undeniably real disaster, the Reagan Administration did—pretty much nothing. Neither did the Bush, Clinton and Bush II administrations, and even the Chamber of Commerce failed to make infrastructure repair one of its key issues. Oh, there were new projects, of course, and when a major bridge started to dump cars into rivers it was repaired. Holes were patched, pipes were replaced here and there. But the full-fledged commitment to the unsexy and incredibly expensive job of keeping the infrastructure sufficient to meet the needs of the nation, and protecting it from the ravages of use and time was deferred, and deferred, and deferred. Something was always more important: wars…tax cuts…the environment…health care. The Obama Administration is following this irresponsible pattern, except it has combined with the profligacy of the Bush Administration to push the Federal deficit into unprecedented dangerous territory. New taxes on just about everybody and everything are going to be needed to stave off financial ruin, and there will be little political will to spend any of the income on something as mundane, but crucial, as sewers.

The problem, however, has become infinitely worse since 1983, when “Transport Tomorrow” was released, and then as now, the attitude of our elected leaders is to let the next guy deal with the problem. Is this responsible? No. Is it cowardly? Yes. Is it a blatant, intentional and knowing distortion of priorities that will threaten American prosperity, jobs, and lives? Absolutely.

Here is a small glimpse of the enormity of the crisis:

  • Just replacing water and sewage lines across the U.S. will on its own cost some $660 billion to $1.1 trillion over the next two decades. The cost of not doing so: unimaginable. Flooding in inner cities, compromised drinking water, contaminated ground water, and more.
  • Maintenance and repair costs are currently rising at a rate 6% above the rate of inflation. The longer we wait, the more expensive it will be, both because the deterioration will be worse and the materials and labor will cost more.
  • More than 25% of the 600,000+ bridges in the United States are either either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Upgrades and repairs are not keeping up with wear and tear, and fixing the bridges is anticipated to cost at least $650 billion over the next 50 years….if the money isn’t spent on something else, like it has been for decades.
  • As roads crumble without adequate funds available to fix them, rural communities are increasingly returning to gravel roads. Of course, gravel roads mean more wear and tear on cars, more wasted fuel, and returning to the quality of transportation of the Forties.
  • None of the above even considers the deteriorating inland waterways, canals, railroad tracks, airports and prisons, all of which are part of the crisis.

When the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its report about the crumbling infrastructure in 2009, it hoped that the bulk of Obama’s stimulus package would be aimed at this pressing need. After all, repairing the infrastructure does create jobs and business for the private sector: if we are going to bust the budget in the name of saving the economy, we should do it by spending on crucial tasks that are unavoidable and on problems that will get worse the longer we wait. The Democrats, however, opted for pork, money for favorite industries, bail-outs of bankers and other pet projects; less than a third of the stimulus package addressed the infrastructure. The Obama Administration, according to its website and definitely according to its public statements, places the crisis low on its list, behind jobs, immigration, climate change, health care, the wars, terrorism, financial reform, and, most of all, getting re-elected.

The information is public and well-documented; the consequences of ignoring the problem indefinitely are clear, and truly horrible. The proper priorities are also obvious, if anyone applies common sense. To take one especially infuriating example: nobody is certain of the extent of the effects of global warming, the time frame, or whether hamstringing American industry and spending (and forfeiting) billions of dollars to reduce carbon emissions will be sufficient to address the problem, whatever its scope. Yet the Obama Administration is accepting the doomsday logic of environmentalists who argue that it is better to waste money to prevent a disaster that may never happen than to risk doing nothing, in case the disaster can be averted. The U.S. infrastructure disaster is 100% certain to occur, and well before speculative global warming puts New York and Boston under water. Before we drown in the glacier-swollen ocean, we may be swimming in sewage, starving, sick and broke.

Blame interest groups for tunnel vision (but not caring about rotting tunnels), blame the media for wanting to talk about Lindsay Lohan rather than the holes in the nation’s roofs, walls and floors, blame the public for thinking that roads and water pipes repair themselves, blame deficit and anti-tax hawks who don’t know the difference between wasteful government spending and essential government spending…but most of all, blame our leaders, past, present and, I fear, future. They have been refusing to deal with this problem for more than forty years, and now they have our economy in a mess that makes it questionable whether we could afford to do what needs to be done even if we finally decided to do it.

Think about this every time your flight is delayed, a bridge is closed, a water main breaks or you hit a pot-hole. Maybe if enough of us get scared and angry, we can force our government to do one of its core jobs: to keep the country’s infrastructure working.

4 thoughts on “Blame Everyone for Infrastructure Ruin: Unethical, Irresponsible Priorities from Reagan to Obama

  1. This is all sorta like saying “Why should I have to dust and vacuum again; I already did it once.” We get what we ask for, and right now, we are getting the same things the Roman mob got–bread and circuses–and look how that turned out.

  2. When I was at the Pentagon in the 1980s and responsible for military installations I set a goal of investing 2% of our plant value each year to replenish our decaying and neglected physical plant–buildings and utilities. Secretaries Weinberger and Carlucci (Reagan admin SecDefs) endorsed it, but when the budget got tough (as it did every year) then money went to weapons or pay, and the plant deteriorated further.

    I think, you’re right that it’s an ethical failure. Our (everybody’s) ethical responsibility is to be good stewards. We ought to leave things better than we found them. Americans did that in the 19th century. I don’t know just when we went astray and began consuming our inheritance.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Blame Everyone for Infrastructure Ruin: Unethical, Irresponsible Priorities from Reagan to Obama « Ethics Alarms --

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