Americans aren’t just paying for the country’s decaying public infrastructure with their pocketbooks. Now they are paying with their lives. The August 1 collapse of one of Minneapolis’s most heavily trafficked bridges, which sent more than fifty vehicles crashing into the Mississippi River, is the latest in a string of infrastructure failures threatening public safety. In early July, on a busy runway at New York’s La Guardia Airport, two airliners nearly collided in a “runway incursion,” a phenomenon so common, said a spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board, they “only investigate a small percentage of them.” Later that month, a steam pipe exploded in midtown Manhattan, flinging mud and asbestos for blocks and sending dozens to the hospital.
Everywhere one looks, the results of decades of public neglect and underinvestment are clear: not only collapsing bridges and exploding steam pipes but traffic-choked streets, clogged ports, corroded drinking-water systems and power brownouts. From 1950 to 1970 the government spent more than 3 percent of GDP on infrastructure. After 1980, that figure dropped by more than a third.
Two years ago, following the catastrophic collapse of the levees in New Orleans, which cost more than 1,000 lives, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued a report cataloguing the myriad deficiencies in our nation’s infrastructure. That report was followed by a number of other worrying findings. The Transportation Department, for example, estimated that freight bottlenecks were costing the economy $200 billion a year. The Environmental Protection Agency warned of antiquated drinking-water and waste-water systems that would require more than $541 billion a year to rebuild over the next twenty years. And the Federal Highway Administration has calculated that some $141 billion will be needed every year for the next twenty years to repair deficient roads and bridges. All told, the ASCE estimated, the government would need to spend $1.6 trillion over the next five years to repair infrastructure. And that estimate did not address our lagging deployment of high-speed broadband or the major expenditures needed to reduce carbon emissions to stave off climate change.
Those reports, and the tragedy of the New Orleans levee collapse, should have been a wake-up call for our leaders, but little has been done. The Bush Administration has been more interested in protecting its tax cuts for the rich and siphoning off money for its endless occupation of Iraq. And the Democratic Party, scrambling to impress Wall Street with its fiscal conservatism, seems to have forgotten its proud heritage as the party of the New Deal and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Indeed, one of the first acts of the new Democratic Congress was to pass a “pay as you go” budget procedure, a roadblock to new public spending, whether on healthcare or infrastructure.
The Minnesota bridge collapse may at last be starting to change those misplaced priorities. Senators Christopher Dodd and Chuck Hagel have introduced legislation to establish a National Infrastructure Bank, which would enable the government to help finance projects by, among other things, offering guarantees to state and local governments. And Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Steven LaTourette have offered a bill to create a Federal Bank for Infrastructure Modernization, which would offer low-cost loans to states and municipalities. These bills entail modest cost to the taxpayer and are a step in the right direction. But they barely begin to meet the nation’s vast public investment needs. The Dodd-Hagel legislation, for example, has proposed an initial bond-issue ceiling of only $60 billion.
But at least the two measures put constructive ideas on the table. All presidential candidates, particularly Democrats, should come up with comprehensive plans for closing the public investment deficit. Nearly fifty years ago, John Kenneth Galbraith warned in The Affluent Society about the danger of public squalor alongside private affluence. Massive public investment, he argued, was needed to improve social goods in areas where the private sector was unwilling to invest. Today, we see Galbraith’s vision materializing on a frightening scale. If we don’t heed his wise advice, we will suffer many more preventable disasters.