Every four years, the decidedly unsexy American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report grading the nation’s infrastructure. In its current iteration, the stuff that makes our society tick got a C-. Our navigable waterways, sewage treatment facilities and drinking water nearly failed with D minuses.
Don’t know about these reports? I didn’t either. They don’t attract eyeballs, meaning they don’t sell ads, meaning the media doesn’t cover them, meaning the media has shamefully refused to connect the dots for at least the last 20 years. Just look at the warnings that we’ve neglected or refused to put together:
•2003: The Northeast goes dark, exposing the electric grid’s fragility.
•2005: Hurricane Katrina. Despite the warnings from civil engineers, known substandard levies collapsed swamping a great American city.
•2007: The I-35W in Minneapolis bridge collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145.
•2010: An ancient (so old it, was made of wood) high-pressure natural gas pipeline exploded taking more than 50 homes in San Bruno, California with it.
•2019: A steam pipe explosion in New York City crippled traffic and commerce. These hundred-plus year-old subterranean pipes explode with regularity, and occasionally injure and kill.
•Every day: Fully-laden aircraft sit on tarmacs for hours on end because the FAA and the airports it supervises have not updated technical and physical infrastructure to keep up with demand.
•Every day San Diegans play Russian Roulette with their tires and suspension when driving in the Sports Arena area, for one local example, where the roads apparently haven’t been maintained for years.
The two best reports on our crumbling infrastructure that I can recall have come from unlikely places. The first appeared in the hobbyists’ magazine, Popular Mechanics, where author Stephen Flynn’s editorial “A Brittle Nation” appeared shortly after the Minneapolis tragedy. Mr. Flynn pointed out that we are like spoiled grandchildren who inherit a beautiful mansion, but party every night with no thought to maintenance and upkeep. He notes that the nation’s infrastructure was built in two bursts, one in the ’20s and ’30s and the other in the post-war boom years of the ’50s and ’60s. Since then, it has essentially been ignored.
Here’s a case in point: following the I-35W disaster, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed an eight-billion-dollar infrastructure bill, saying it was too expensive. The legislature went back to work and cut the proposed expenditure in half. The governor again vetoed it, saying the state couldn’t afford such “over reaching,” but he somehow, found a way to use hundreds of millions in public money to fund a half-billion-dollar baseball stadium. Get it? A shiny new stadium versus a bunch of rusty old bridges; I guess new is always better than old.
The other unlikely source of interest is the television journalist Ted Koppel’s recent book, “Lights Out,” in which he details the dire-straights in which we find our at-capacity, antiquated, and highly vulnerable-to-hacking (as the Russians recently showed us) electrical grid. His prophecy came true last month when the Texas grid collapsed.
And since we started keeping track of infrastructure deficiencies way back in the ’90s, we’ve had to add high-speed internet to our list of unmet modern infrastructure requirements.
When columnist Tom Friedman returned from covering the Beijing Olympics, he reported that flying from China to JFK was like leaving the Jetsons and landing in the Flintstones. The reference was to China’s modernization efforts contrasted with America’s resistance to spending money on roads, bridges, high-speed internet, transportation hubs like ports, airports and rail stations, the electrical grid, and our water purification plants.
That was in 2008, a long time ago by almost any standard of technology and infrastructure, but the problem predated the Beijing games by a lot. In fact, the Society of Civil Engineers began sounding the warning about our crumbling infrastructure long before 2008.
You might think that infrastructure repair and growth would be a no-brainer. A bipartisan, make that non-partisan, common sense, necessary legislative job. But for a number of reasons, it looks like Republicans will fight against it. Generally, they don’t like to spend money, save for tax cuts for their wealthiest patrons, and 2021’s effort will be no different. The Democrats will again have to act unilaterally, probably through the budget reconciliation process, if we are to get any timely maintenance accomplished. It is a given that Republicans would vote for infrastructure projects if only Democrats didn’t want them.
The infrastructure is largely out of sight, both figuratively and literally. It resides underground as sewers, water and gas pipes and electrical conduits. It is the roadway we drive, the water we drink, the power we consume, the control systems for our travel networks, and the safety net for our food and medicine. It is so omnipresent as to be invisible. We only notice it when it’s gone.