The state of America’s infrastructure is going from bad to worse. Every time a levee breaks or a bridge collapses that is just a symptom of a larger problem that affects every part of the country, rural and urban, liberal and conservative. As I type this our children are being taught in dangerously sub-standard school buildings and their buses are driving over obsolete roadways with structurally deficient bridges.
It is hard to forget the sight of water 14 feet deep in New Orleans after the failure of the levees there. The sight of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis was also horrific to behold. Failing infrastructure can be as deadly and heart-wrenching as a terrorist attack. It can also be as disruptive. Earlier this year the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge had to be closed indefinitely due to structural failure. This key link across the San Francisco Bay extended commutes by hours and overcrowded trains and buses.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our infrastructure a ‘D’ grade. Leaky water pipes waste billions of gallons of precious fresh water. Dams are broken, degrading, and at risk of collapse. Near where I write this blog runs the Kentucky River, which has 14 locks and dams on it, many of which are inoperable due to age. This makes the river unnavigable depriving the people of Kentucky a resource that they should have every right to access. The locks and dams on our navigable rivers date back as far as 150 years ago and many are now inactive making these waterways unusable to commercial traffic. The ASCE estimates that 50% of these locks are functionally obsolete. In 10 years that number will rise to 80%.
The Secretary of Transportation is warning us of the insolvency of the highway trust fund that pays for our current infrastructure upkeep and construction. For the second year in a row it has run out of money and has had to receive an emergency authorization and appropriation from Congress.
Though our recession is over the economy is still bleeding jobs. The unemployment rate is currently 10.2%, and some economists believe it will continue to grow to over 12%. before the recovery is actually felt. Rising unemployment could extend the recession even further. Certainly with this large a segment of the population willing to work but unable to find jobs, the manpower is there to reassemble our infrastructure.
Fine then, there are people to hire to shore up our levies and dams, lay down railroad track, hang new electrical wire, and pave new roads. How do we pay for all of this? The solution on the right seems to be to privatize the electrical grid and some roadways to help pay for them. However it is unclear whether there will be an will on the part of the private sector to upgrade these utilities if they were to own them.
Take the railroads for example, which were built and grown as a private industry. Many of our large class-A railroads have left their rights-of-way in abhorrent condition with warped rail, decades-old signaling systems, and centuries-old electrification systems. Their motivation for doing so is obvious: if they can still run the same amount of freight without having to pay the upkeep on their assets, they make more money and appease their shareholders.
Is this profit-driven model really what is best for our roads and electrical grids? I think not. Therefore the money has to come out of the United States treasury and new revenue streams must be opened up to fund infrastructure projects on a massive scale. This naturally means more taxes. Unless we end the war in Afghanistan and drastically reduce our defense budget, a tax hike is inevitable.
Maybe not a tax hike, actually, but a tax restoration. If we repeal the Bush tax cut, which vastly went to a small percentage of high earners in this country, we could fund this kind of infrastructure repair over a decade. Studies showed that Bush tax cuts have cost us over $2.4 trillion since 2001. In fact, if we raised the national gas tax a few percent, we could fund both health care reform with a public option and a restoration and upgrade of our national infrastructure simultaneously in a deficit-neutral manner.
There is clearly some bipartisan political will in Washington to get something done on a national level. I think funding will be the sticking point. President Obama has called for a ‘jobs summit’ in December. One of the topics which will be discussed is how to use the need for infrastructure repair and upgrade in this country to create new jobs.
However, there is already a bill in congress that will go a long way to funding infrastructure repair and modernization.It will put hundreds of billion of dollars into our roads and rails, and it will give good, permanent jobs to many of those currently seeking work. In future blogs I will be discussing the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 and why it is so important to the future of this country.