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Malign Neglect

Author: Stephen E. Flynn
August 7, 2007
The Boston Globe

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As I stood on the south bank of the Mississippi River, trying to make sense of the twisted wreckage of what two days before had been a transportation lifeline for the Twin Cities, I had a 9/11 flashback to my visit to the smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers. Thankfully, the loss of innocent lives in Minnesota is a tiny fraction of those snuffed out by the falling towers in New York. But my latest pilgrimage to a disaster site was especially heart wrenching because this was a catastrophe entirely of our own making.

In May 2007, two months before the Interstate 35 west bridge catastrophically failed, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota vetoed a transportation bill that included new taxes to pay for it. He called what would have been the state’s first gas tax increase in two decades “an unnecessary and onerous burden.”

Sound familiar? It should because when it comes to opting for crowd-pleasing pledges of “no new taxes” over mustering the resources to address the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, Pawlenty has had plenty of company. Like the heirs to an old mansion who elect not to pay for its upkeep, our president, governors, and mayors have been in lockstep, tacitly allowing us to squander an extraordinary legacy of inventiveness, industry, and investment bequeathed to us by our forebears.

Most Americans cannot recall a time when great public works were a source of national pride. It was our grandparents and great-grandparents who celebrated the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Holland Tunnel, and the Hoover Dam. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System marked its 50th anniversary last year. Americans “celebrated” the occasion by spending 3.5 billion hours stuck in traffic.

The world now has a new searing image to join those of a blacked-out Northeast in 2003, a drowned New Orleans in 2005, and the Manhattan steam pipe burst of last month. The security camera footage of the 6-second collapse of the I-35 west bridge fills in the picture of a global superpower that is rotting from within. Americans should be deeply embarrassed and outraged. We are the wealthiest country on the planet with a gross domestic product of over $13 trillion dollars per year. What madness leads us to believe we can continue to be safe and prosperous by taking for granted the critical foundations that made our advance society advanced in the first place?

The day the bridge fell, Carol Molnau, Minnesota’s secretary of transportation, was traveling in Asia. With our decaying bridges, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains, and a primitive air traffic control system, going abroad is the only way to see world-class infrastructure. China spent an estimated $200 billion in 2005 on ports, roads, bridges, and its power grid. Washington spent roughly half that amount, even though our economy is six times bigger.

In the wake of this latest tragedy, Americans must demand three things from elected officials. First, within one year, governors and mayors should prepare a report card on the condition of the infrastructure within their jurisdiction using the criteria developed by the American Society of Civil Engineers. These evaluations should include a cost estimate for correcting deficiencies. Second, the president needs to create a bipartisan commission, supported by the National Academies of Science, to review the report cards and create a national must-do list based on risk and criticality. Third, Congress must raise taxes and establish a $300-billion-a-year Infrastructure Resiliency Fund dedicated to clearing the list in 10 years. Spending on new congressional pet projects should be suspended in the interim.

Would this ambitious agenda impose “an unnecessary and onerous burden” on our society?

Of course not – it amounts to 2.3 percent of our gross domestic product or roughly a quarter of the percentage rate China is currently spending. And mustering the resources to pay for the upkeep of critical infrastructure is a sound investment. It provides well-paying jobs for working Americans while sustaining our economic competitiveness and improving our quality of life.

Alternatively, neglecting the hardware of a modern society is expensive. Highway congestion alone costs the US economy $63.2 billion a year, even without including the price tag for needlessly adding to global warming. And for the latest victims in Minneapolis of our malign neglect of infrastructure, the price is intolerably high.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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