Op Ed

U.S. Needs an Infrastructure Plan

The dam failings in Michigan dramatize a pressing national concern.

By - May 24th, 2020 10:16 am

The White House. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The White House. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid (CC BY-SA 3.0)

On Wednesday in Michigan our nation again witnessed disasters due to our aging and crumbling infrastructure. Too often these events happen, and it reflects on our political inability to govern and create the required policies.

I had hoped that Donald Trump might have entered office in January 2017 and poured attention on the infrastructure needs in the nation. By focusing on bridges, ports, airports, railways, telecoms, and educational infrastructure the nation would have created jobs, united politicians of all stripes, and helped solve one of our staggeringly large national problems. Trump, in so doing, could have left an ugly campaign and started his term in office in a respectful manner.

Needless to say, that is not the path that Trump took. Meanwhile, our infrastructure is breaking apart before our eyes.

In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure an overall grade of D+, and it estimated it would cost $4.59 trillion over a 10-year period to rectify this important problem. We have yet to start. (But congress was able to provide a tax cut to the wealthiest in 2017.)

I have long argued for a major infrastructure plan for this country. I was displeased that the Republicans in Congress did not support or work with President Barack Obama when he proposed a bill in his second term that would have generated jobs and needed internal improvements. I made it clear that Democrats should work with Trump on such a plan if only he could pay attention long enough to get a massive undertaking started. Trump did, after all, campaign on a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure plan.  But that is as far as it proceeded.

An infrastructure bill would have been a gigantic source of economic energy that would have produced a positive outcome. Fly into any major airport or ride the transit in Chicago or Amtrak in DC and it becomes most obvious that we need to have a serious investment with internal improvements.

We found out Wednesday why such leadership on infrastructure is needed.

Two dam breaches in Michigan caused severe flooding, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate and threatening a major toxic cleanup site. The two dams which made headlines were among at least 170 dams in that state that were classified as a “high” hazard potential, meaning that a failure could result in the loss of life.

We use to do better, as The New Yorker reminded us.

Hoover Dam was completed under budget, and two years ahead of schedule, and the Golden Gate Bridge, too, was finished early and cost $1.3 million less than expected. So what’s going wrong? It’s complicated: one analysis of the problem cited thirty-nine possible causes. And factors that immediately come to mind, like higher land costs or labor costs, don’t explain the difference between the U.S. and places like Japan or France. But some problems are clear. A plethora of regulatory hurdles and other veto points drag things out and increase costs. When New Jersey wanted to raise the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge, it took five years, and twenty thousand pages of paperwork, for the project to get under way. Obviously, environmental and workplace standards are important, but a recent paper by Philip Howard, the chairman of Common Good, suggests that a more streamlined regulatory process, like those found in many developed countries, could save hundreds of billions of dollars.

The first major feat of this kind with infrastructure in our nation was the Erie Canal. De Witt Clinton was a mayor of New York City and later governor. He pressed for the canal measure to be passed and worked to overcome the opposition of many others with vested interests. In the end when the job was done a canal 363 miles long, 4 feet deep, 28 feet wide at the bottom and 40 at the top, with 83 locks, lifting boats to a height of almost 600 feet, and costing over $7 million dollars was created. Consider that bold project at the time in a small nation with a rudimentary economic system. Where there is a will…..

I know the national government today can and must do better when it comes to a national commitment to infrastructure. Abdicating any responsibility and showing no resolve to address the problems will only allow for more dams, bridges, and electrical grids to become headlines.

The issue of infrastructure must be a 2020 campaign theme and then turned into a funded policy starting in 2021. How many more dreadful headlines must we encounter before we have learned our lesson?

Gregory Humphrey writes for the Caffeinated Politics blog.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

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