CRF Blog

A Country Breaking Down

by Bill Hayes

In A Country Breaking Down for the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew reviews 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman, Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure by Henry Petroski, and Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel.

It would be helpful if there were another word for “infrastructure”: it’s such an earnest and passive word for the blood vessels of this country, the crucial conveyors and connections that get us from here to there (or not) and the ports that facilitate our trade (or don’t), as well as the carriers of information, in particular broadband (if one is connected to it), and other unreliable structures. The word “crisis” is also overused, applied to the unimportant as well as the crucial. But this country has an infrastructure crisis.

The near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future, eschewing what doesn’t yield the quick payoff, political and physical, has left us with hopelessly clogged traffic, at risk of being on a bridge that collapses, or on a train that flies off defective rails, or with rusted pipes carrying our drinking water. Broadband is our new interstate highway system, but not everyone has access to it — a division largely based on class. Depending on the measurement used, the United States ranks from fourteenth to thirtieth among all nations in its investments in infrastructure. The wealthiest nation on earth is nowhere near the top.

Congress’s approval last December of a five-year bill to spend $305 billion to improve the nation’s highway system occasioned much self-congratulation that the lawmakers actually got something done. But with an increase in the gasoline tax politically off-limits, the means for paying for it are dubious and uncertain. This was the longest-term highway bill passed since 1998 and the thirty-fifth extension of an authorization of highway construction since 2005. Some of the extensions of the highway program approved by Congress lasted for only three months. The previous extension was for just over three weeks. Such practices don’t allow for much planning of the construction or repair of highways and bridges and mass transit systems.

Our political myopia has put us in actual physical danger as we go about the mundane business of getting about. We let essential structures and facilities deteriorate or go unbuilt. A politician is more likely get in trouble with constituents for spending federal money than for not spending federal money. Moreover, as a rule Washington politicians, whether in office for two or four or six years, aren’t keen on spending for something that doesn’t have a near-term payoff — perhaps a structure that they can dedicate and even get their names inscribed on. [more]