Back Page: The infrastructure crisis?

Conservative think tanks in Washington routinely issue reports dismissing claims of an “infrastructure crisis” in the United States. And while I normally agree with these organizations’ small government philosophy, on this I have to disagree.

Their reports are dense with rigorous numerical analysis. But like the pilots who kept staring at what they thought was a broken altimeter only to crash their plane into the ground, sometimes you have to forget about the artificial environment of numbers, look up from the instrument panel and see what’s going on around you.

In Honolulu this winter torrential rains burst open the city’s long neglected sewer system and sent a river of untreated filth into the waters surrounding Waikiki. The most famous beach in the world was closed for weeks as toxic sludge oozed onto the reefs. The episode is hardly unique. The ocean turns toxic every time it rains hard in Southern California now. Some time ago I quit collecting stories on infrastructure breakdowns like these; there are too many to keep on file. But the most lethal example is the failure of levies in New Orleans last summer.

More than 1,000 people died and a major city was decimated in part because of this failure. Can anybody look at that and still say U.S. infrastructure funding is sufficient? The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2005 report card on the state of the nation’s infrastructure gave the country a cumulative grade of D (down from a D+ in 2001.) And this was months before Katrina. The details can be found on the ASCE’s website.

A glance back in history can tell you where it started to go wrong. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal share of tax money spent on infrastructure during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years topped out at about 33 percent. Today it’s under 25 percent. Growing up in the early 1960s I vividly remember the pride with which adults spoke of modern water treatment plants and the rural electrification and interstate highway programs that were underway. They didn’t argue about it, they just went out and built them.

Part of the problem is the nature of our government, which has changed from serving the collective needs of all the people to an organization that doles out money to special interest groups. Granted a “highway lobby” exists. And they’ve pulled down some big budgets for federal highway funding. But those funds come from the gas tax – and unlike income, social security and medicaid taxes – you can give up your car or drive a Honda if you don’t like the gas tax.

Even so, we don’t invest in infrastructure like we used to, and it’s painfully obvious to anyone who’s willing to look up from the instrument panel and face reality.

So that brings up the question: What is government for? What is its primary goal and what are its priorities? Is it to serve all the people – or targeted special interest groups? Are we going to have a government of the politically connected, by the politically powerful and for the highest bidder? Will charity be forced to replace what government used to do? I don’t know how these questions will be answered in the next few years but how we answer them will determine whether or not the United States in the future will look more like a third world country and less like the country our fathers and grandfathers built for us.