A Crumbling America

In arguing in favor of a surge in Afghanistan, President Obama cited the importance of investing in the country’s infrastructure as a mechanism for strengthening democracy. Our Commander-in-Chief has currently approved the pouring of billions of dollars into Afghani schools, clinics, roads, and bridges. In addition, the United States has currently added “hundreds of US advisers including agricultural specialists, engineers and lawyers.” Yet in light of recent events, I urge our president to bring home our money, our resources, and even our engineers.

The United States is falling apart. No, I am not talking about our leadership or our standing in the world (although one could make a good case for either). I am talking about the physical infrastructure of the country. While other countries such as China and India have invested billions in creating 21st century infrastructure, America has grown content with the progress made under the Eisenhower Administration. The lessons learned from the devastating collapses of both the levees in New Orleans and the Mississippi River Bridge in 2007 have all but disappeared with talk of the bank and auto bailouts.

What we had speculated about for years has finally been articulated in the extensive American Society of Civil Engineers report on the state of infrastructure in the country. Our report card is on par with that of a third world country; our GPA added up to a solid D. Maybe instead of discussing the correlation between Afghani infrastructure and Middle East safety, we should talk about the relationship between America’s infrastructure and American safety. We do not need terrorists to destroy our infrastructure; we are doing it for them.

For any student, these grades would warrant a parent teacher conference. Let’s just take a moment to address some of these failings. In regards to aviation, our airports, and more importantly our air traffic control systems, are clearly outdated which not only carries financial costs in delays, but also a potential for human costs.  The ground is not much safer as over one and four bridges are “either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.” The question is not if we will have another bridge collapse in the United States, but when. Our roads are in even worse shape; one in three are deemed to be in “poor condition.” Even the most precious resource of clean water has come in jeopardy. Our drinking water systems are decades old and in dire need of repair. Many fail to comply with current water safety regulations, never mind meeting the demand of a growing 21st century population.

Yet attention to these important issues of infrastructure seems to have disappeared during the Great Recession. Contrary to what Congress may believe, government spending is not a zero sum game where money is either allocated to economic recovery or infrastructure. Infrastructure can and should play a critical role in turning our economy around. While tax cuts are important, money needs to be allotted for public works projects that benefit both the workers and the community. There is no better example of the role that public works can play in economic recovery than that of treatment of areas that have been contaminated by hazardous waste known as brownfield land. The redevelopments of brownfield land in the past five years have produced a staggering 191,338 jobs and extra $408 million in annual revenue for localities. However, there are currently 188 U.S. cities awaiting federal funds for brownfield cleanups. Uncle Sam needs to allocate public funds not only for brownfield cleanups, but also for all other types of public works projects that will both create jobs and improve community life.

The Milken Institute recently released a report citing ten specific national infrastructure projects that could create in excess of 3.4 million jobs.  As Congress discusses economic recovery, it simultaneously needs to be focusing on developing our infrastructure. Yet despite the present evidence, Congress seems to be moving in a different direction. As Senator McCain wisely diagnosed long ago, “The problem is that most members of Congress don’t pay attention to what’s going on.”

The House’s $825 billion current proposal for a new jobs bill fails to comprehend the negative consequences of faltering infrastructure and the positive externalities of improved infrastructure. Less than a third of the bill’s spending is dedicated to addressing our infrastructure crisis. The actual percentage of investment being allotted to “concrete” infrastructure projects is even less, as much of the money is being directed to peculiar areas such as the development of a health record database. The rest of the bill focuses on tax cuts, state aid, and expanding the already large financial safety net.

This approach feels fundamentally flawed as a mechanism for creating jobs and even keeping America safe. Wayne Klotz, the president of ASCE, notes, “Our leaders are looking for solutions to the nation’s current economic crisis. Not only could investment in these critical foundations have a positive impact.  If done responsibly, it would also provide tangible benefits to the American people such as reduced traffic congestion, improved air quality, clean and abundant water supplies, and protection against natural hazards.”

President Obama deserves credit for addressing the need for investment in our failing infrastructure during his State of the Union address, a topic that went seemingly unnoticed during the Bush Administration. However, Obama failed to articulate both the importance of the issue and a strong plan to deal with the current crisis. Investing in infrastructure is not about competing with China to build the fastest train, but rather, a belief that all Americans should feel comfortable driving on our roads, flying in our airports, and drinking our water.

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