Patching Up the Infrastructure
• Time for talk has passed; major problems need addressing now
How Can We Avoid the Next Catastrophe?
By Victor Thorn
Every year the U.S. government appropriates in excess of $1T of taxpayer money to maintain its global empire. Worse, Washington’s leaders continue to spend hundreds of billions annually on such things as foreign aid and public television, while the country’s bridges, dams, waterways and roads fall apart. It has gotten so bad that, today, America’s decaying infrastructure is ranked 23rd among industrialized countries, behind not only China and Germany, but even countries like Barbados and Malaysia. With our nation still mired in a seemingly never-ending recession, it’s difficult to imagine how, economically, we can tackle this mounting problem.
Think about it. According to experts, if a 7.8MW earthquake (on the Richter scale) struck California’s San Andreas Fault in such a way that it compromised that state’s 2,600-mile network of levees, the result would dwarf the destruction seen after the Aug. 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster.
In an April 22, 2011 article, Boonsri Dickinson wrote, “The disaster could induce liquefaction by turning sand into quicksand and causing the levees to sink.” Similar to what occurred following Japan’s Fukushima tsunami, billions of gallons of water would flood out across farmland, highways, railroads, power distribution centers and major metropolitan areas.
These levees, with some sections being over 100 years old, represent a microcosm of America’s aging and neglected infrastructure system. Lester Snow, director of California’s Department of Water Resources, called these levees “a ticking time bomb.” If destroyed, analysts predict that two-thirds of Golden State residents would have their drinking water disrupted for years into the future.
But instead of relying on hypothetical scenarios, one only needs to examine New Orleans following Katrina. As levees crumbled under an onslaught of raging waters, it led to what became the greatest engineering calamity in U.S. history. With 1,836 people dead and parts of the city in complete shambles, 80% of evacuated residents had still not returned to their homes after four months. As emergency services broke down and hapless victims were herded into the Superdome or sat stranded atop their roofs, this epic failure alerted Americans to our precarious situation.
Other parts of the country have also been affected by an infrastructure crisis. On Aug. 1, 2007, Minneapolis’s I-35W Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. Thirteen motorists died, and hundreds of others were injured. What few people realize is that only three months prior to this incident, state transportation officials inspected the bridge and gave it a passing mark.
More recently, only days before this year’s Independence Day festivities, a major wind-and rainstorm knocked out power for millions of residents in the D.C./Va./Md. area. With temperatures soaring into the triple digits, some households wound up throwing away thousands of dollars worth of frozen food and medicines. Frustrated locals were forced to endure up to a week without air conditioning, refrigeration, clean water and everything else that is taken for granted on the electrical grid. Dozens died. In 2003, an extensive blackout in the Midwest caused millions to suffer a similar plight.
The scope of America’s infrastructure woes was also seen on July 18, 2007, when a decrepit steam pipe burst beneath Manhattan’s streets. Within seconds, a 40-story-high explosion of searing steam, mud and debris rocketed toward the sky, causing New Yorkers to initially fear another 9-11-style attack. The geyser continued to spew for nearly two hours, with one woman dying of a heart attack while others suffered severe burns across their bodies.
Hidden from view beneath the tranquil San Francisco Bay area, electrical systems catch fire or experience explosions nearly every three months.
Nearby San Bruno lost an entire neighborhood, and eight were killed, following a series of chaotic natural gas pipeline eruptions on Sept. 9, 2010.
Nobody seems immune. In 2006, Hawaii’s Kaloko Dam collapsed. Over the years, 31 states have experienced massive discharges of untreated waste-water from overflowing sewage systems, resulting in millions of people suffering from gastrointestinal illnesses. Around the country, leaking water pipes allow 7B gallons of water to escape each day.
Infrastructure neglect even affects our time via gridlock in major cities. Outdated switching systems on trains and subways regularly cause frustrating delays for mass transit passengers.
By the year 2015, it is expected that eight metropolitan airports will not be able to handle increasing demand.
Congestion on freeways such as those in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. is not getting any better. Every year Americans lose a total of 4.2B man-hours sitting in traffic jams.
GOP, Democrats Deserve Equal Blame for Mess
By Victor Thorn
When it comes to disregard for our nation’s infrastructure, Republicans and Democrats share equal responsibility. Throughout his eight years in office, President George W. Bush squandered $1T on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, oftentimes rebuilding their bridges, schools and highways while ours were ignored. Many of these construction projects were blown up shortly after completion, only to be rebuilt again.
Following the election in 2008, President Barack Obama promised immediate “shovel-ready jobs” after Congress passed his $862B stimulus package. But instead of using those funds to rebuild our ailing infrastructure, Obama diverted much of it to failed “green jobs” initiatives, boondoggles like weatherproofing homes or to pay the salaries and pensions of state and local municipalities. These measures left our infrastructure no better off now than it was before.
In 2007, the U.S. government spent a mere 2.4% of GDP on infrastructure projects, compared to England’s 2.9%, China’s 3.3%, Brazil’s 8.2% and India’s 9%. ASCE projects that the U.S. will need a minimum investment of $2.2T over the next five years to repair water systems, the energy grid, schools, roadways, bridges and major airport terminals.
The obvious question is: Where will this money come from? During a July 12 interview, Steve Anderson of the organization Infrastructure USA told this writer: “We’re not a poor country. In fact, we’re one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and we have plenty of resources. We just have to decide how they’ll be used. We’ve reached a turning point where the problem has clearly been identified, but we’re letting it fester. What America faces is a big challenge. I’m not talking about casual fixer-uppers. These aren’t little projects.”
Still, when the federal government borrows 40 cents on every dollar spent and Congress is in perpetual gridlock, it appears as if, without leadership, the deterioration of our infrastructure will continue.
Circumstances are no better at the state and local level. In California, three cities recently declared bankruptcy: Stockton, San Bernardino and Mammoth Lakes. Taxpayers are questioning why Governor Jerry Brown is forging ahead with a high-dollar, high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco when crumbling roads and bridges should be addressed first. And it’s not just California that is suffering. The mayor of Scranton, Pa. was recently forced to reduce all city workers’ compensation to minimum wage after accountants reported they only had $5K left in the bank. To justify his move, Mayor Chris Doherty said: “I don’t have enough money, and I can’t print it in the basement.”
Even one of the wealthiest and highest taxed locales in America, Nassau County, N.Y., faces a $310M deficit this year. Critics blame this shortfall not on infrastructure outlays, but on the fact that almost 50% of Nassau’s entire $2.63B operating budget is eroded by public employee benefits.
Private Industry Must Team Up With Feds
By Victor Thorn
It’s clear that governments at all levels have fumbled the ball in regard to maintaining our nation’s infrastructure. Fortunately, there are innovative individuals thinking outside the box. One of them is attorney John Palatiello, president of the Business Coalition for Fair Competition.
During a July 12 interview, Palatiello told this writer: “In my view, we have an infrastructure problem that’s bigger than what government can do alone. The old model of raising taxes and spending government money isn’t sufficient anymore. Rather, states should have an incentive to enter ‘P3s,’ or private-public partnerships. My idea isn’t to replace government entirely, but instead decide upon new roles and responsibilities for government instead of them doing it alone.”
Palatiello said: “P3s aren’t a radical idea. Before becoming president, George Washington owned a private barge company that he used to partner with the state of Virginia so that they could build a canal along the Potomac River. In this regard, P3s are as old as America itself. Government should be contracting out construction services, engineering and transit functions to the private sector. There exist a whole variety of areas where government should step back and not compete in areas that lend themselves better to the private sector.”
In a July 3 article co-written with Leonard Gilroy of the Reason Foundation, Palatiello suggested that the government apply what he calls a “yellow pages test.” In other words, they should remove themselves from services or functions that private enterprise can better provide.
He and Gilroy noted: “When government opts to conduct these activities in-house—with lavish pay and retirement benefits for public employees who do the work—then they are taking away economic opportunities from the private sector and making government unnecessarily bigger than it need be.”
They also cite numerous examples where local and state governments own golf courses, sports arenas, liquors stores and amusement parks. Palatiello told AMERICAN FREE PRESS: “The city of Trenton, N.J. owns a Marriott Hotel that lost $11.5M last year. How can that be justified?”
Governments have become too big, Palatiello noted. “[They’re] the nation’s largest banker, insurer, homeowner, landlord, utility provider, as well as bus, transit and passenger train operator,” he said. “Despite much lip service paid by policymakers to the benefits of private competitive enterprise, the yellow pages test is largely ignored.”
As a model for what they envision, Palatiello and Gilroy point to an Atlanta suburb named Sandy Springs. With 94K residents, Sandy Springs employs only seven workers. Most city activities are private-public partnerships.
They write, “Since the day it incorporated in 2005 [Sandy Springs] has handed off to private enterprises just about every service that can be evaluated through metrics and inked into a contract.”
With an incentive to be prosperous and profitable rather than suffering under the stagnation of bloated governments at every level, America could actually tackle its infrastructure crisis.
Victor Thorn is a hard-hitting researcher, journalist and the author of over 30 books.