A Country Breaking Down

Rescue workers gathered below the Interstate 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis after it collapsed and fell into the Mississippi River and onto its banks during evening rush hour, August 2007
Allen Brisson-Smith/The New York Times/Redux
Rescue workers gathered below the Interstate 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis after it collapsed and fell into the Mississippi River and onto its banks during evening rush hour, August 2007

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.

The water pipes underneath the White House are said to still be made of wood, as are some others in the nation’s capital and some cities across the country. We admire Japan’s and France’s “bullet trains” that get people to their destination with remarkable efficiency, but many other nations have them as well, including Russia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. A friend of mine recently rode on the Turkish bullet train and noted that the coffee in his full cup didn’t spill. Last year, Japan demonstrated its new maglev train, which, using electromagnets, levitates above the tracks, and can go about an amazing 375 miles per hour, making it the fastest train in the world. The fastest commercially used maglev, in Shanghai, goes up to 288 miles per hour. But the United States hasn’t a single system that meets all the criteria of high-speed rail. President Obama has proposed a system of high-speed railroads, which has gone nowhere in Congress.

When it comes to providing the essentials of a modern society, it has to be said that we’re a backward country. California Governor Jerry Brown, a longtime visionary, has initiated the building of a high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco; one high-speed rail system scheduled to come into service soon to carry people between the wealthy cities of Dallas and Houston will be privately financed. (Shopping and business made easier.) But not many communities have the means to build their own train.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) conducts a study of where the United States stands in providing needed infrastructure in various sectors. Though the organization obviously has an interest in the creation of more construction jobs, its analyses, based as they are on information from other studies, are taken seriously by nonpartisan experts in the field. In the ASCE’s most recent report card, issued in 2013, the combined sectors received an overall grade of D+. In the various sectors, the grades were: aviation, D; bridges, C+; inland waterways, D–; ports, C; rail, C+; roads, D; mass transit, D; schools, D; hazardous waste, D; drinking water, D. No sector received an A. That none of the infrastructure categories received an F is hardly grounds for celebration.

The ASCE says that the estimated need of support for America’s infrastructure by 2020 is $3.6 trillion. Total spending at current levels is estimated by the ASCE to be $253 billion annually and estimated spending between 2013 and 2020, before passage of the highway bill, is estimated at $2 trillion, leaving us $1.6 trillion short.

We watched in horror in August 2007 when during the evening rush hour a bridge in Minneapolis over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing thirteen people and injuring another 145. In Washington State in 2013 a bridge with two cars on it collapsed. The ASCE’s 2013 report card said that one in nine bridges was structurally deficient; that as of 2013 the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges was forty-two years, while the Federal Highway Administration estimates that “more than 30 percent of existing bridges have exceeded their fifty-year design life.” According to the ASCE, to have safe bridges by 2028, the US needs to invest $20.5 billion per year, but current spending annually on bridges is $12.8 billion.

As for aviation, the report said, “The national cost of airport congestion and delays was almost $22 billion in 2012.” Inland waterways, which get little attention, are, the ASCE says, “the hidden backbone of our freight network,” carrying “the equivalent of about 51 million truck trips each year.” But the waterways haven’t been updated since the 1950s and because half of the locks, according to the ASCE, are over fifty years old, barges have to be stopped for hours each day, “preventing goods from getting to market and driving up costs.”

As for ports, critical to the US as a trading nation, a few have been built by private investment through port authorities—some of these, as has been apparent in New Jersey, can get enmeshed in petty local politics; but dredging to accommodate large vessels is paid for in large part by the federal government and federal spending for that has decreased.

The recently enacted highway bill will make only a dent in the needed roadway construction. According to the ASCE, 42 percent of American major urban highways remain congested, costing the US economy roughly $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually. As of 2013, the report said, 32 percent of America’s major roads were “in poor or mediocre condition.” As a result of congestion, according to the ASCE, Americans wasted 1.9 billion gallons of gasoline and an average of thirty-four hours in 2010, and the cost to the US economy of wasted fuel was $101 billion. But the mass transit we now have far from makes up for the road conditions, and isn’t available to an estimated 45 percent of American households; millions more have inadequate mass transit systems. The report said that “deficient and deteriorating transit systems cost the US economy $90 billion in 2010.” At the time of the report, the Federal Transit Administration estimated a backlog of nearly $78 billion in maintaining mass transit.

Perhaps a step forward was taken in a bill passed in 2012, called America Fast Forward, to encourage local governments to float bonds to pay for improvements in mass transit. This was the first time that the Obama administration backed public–private partnerships to achieve federal goals. It was based on a program developed the previous year for Los Angeles County that was intended to raise $45 billion to invest in mass transit, in order to change LA from an automobile-based culture to a community based on mass transit.

Finally, the level of federal investment in fixing the aging electrical grid and the pipelines for distributing energy was leading to an increasing number of power failures and interruptions. This category received a grade of D+.

A symptom of this country’s dismal record of providing for these civic essentials is the fairly large number of books published recently that try to call attention to the infrastructure crisis. Some are more comprehensive than others. For example a book solely about rust, titled Rust: The Longest War, by Jonathan Waldman, provides case studies of projects that have been allowed to rust to death (a steel mill) or to continue with rust in them (tin cans), or projects that had to be rescued from dangerous levels of corrosion (the Statue of Liberty).

A shuttered train terminal in Buffalo, New York, 2015; photograph by Matt Black
Magnum Photos
A shuttered train terminal in Buffalo, New York, 2015; photograph by Matt Black

In his very readable book, Waldman assesses the annual cost of rust to the country at more than $400 billion, or 3 percent of GNP. An official in charge of the Pentagon’s hardly known Office of Corrosion Policy and Oversight says that rust is the navy’s number one foe. Rust degrades automobiles’ brake linings, risking deadly accidents. (Rusty pipes are what caused the crisis of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan.) Waldman’s positive news, meager as it is, is that engineers are starting to think more about the materials they use so as to avoid corrosion. But he accepts the verdict of an expert who said that “the field remains poorly defined and inadequately respected.”

Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead, by Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, brings a clear focus to a sprawling phenomenon: the inadequate care now given to our nation’s modes of transportation. Her thesis is that we’re stuck. Traffic is clogged, flights are delayed, trains are late, bridges collapse, public transit breaks down—and the political system is incapable of making the investments that would keep these things from happening.

But the book’s comprehensive view of infrastructure is also its weakness: it leaves the reader somewhat bewildered about priorities. Like others, Kanter suggests that more projects be paid for through public–private partnerships. She urges that local communities undertake the big necessary projects and that they depend less on Congress to deliver funding, which is all well and good if cities and states have the will and the resources to invest in large, expensive projects and if they distribute them fairly among neighborhoods, some of which can contribute little to pay for them.

Kanter argues that we should forget fighting about the gasoline tax to pay for highway and bridge construction. In fact she advises forgetting about Congress when it comes to help on these projects. But later in the book she urges that Congress make a larger investment in the nation’s infrastructure. She wants us to address more analytically how cities work. Kanter says, “The American dilemma is politics, not money.” But it’s the politics that produces the money, or not—the degree of the willingness of politicians to risk riling their constituents by calling for more money to go into projects whose importance isn’t widely accepted (such as Alaska’s proposed “bridge to nowhere,” which was finally canceled last year) or for projects that benefit one neighborhood over others. In the end, Kanter points to what we usually point to when we want difficult things to happen: leadership. “It’s all a matter of leadership,” she writes. If only the problems were that simple.

The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure by Henry Petroski is a thorough account of how our highway system got to be what it is. From Petroski we learn, for example, why there’s a white line down the middle of a road; why even-numbered roads go east–west and odd ones go north–south. He also gives us the enticing visions of self-healing asphalt that will fix potholes right away and self-heating concrete. Petroski writes that “shortchanging our investments in infrastructure is short-changing the well-being and optimism in future generations and the prospect for economic growth.”

He describes clearly the deterioration of many of the roads we heavily depend on. Along the way, Petroski, a professor of civil engineering at Duke, opens our eyes to an important historical point. Though President Dwight D. Eisenhower is generally credited with our national highway system, the concept originated with Franklin Roosevelt, who envisioned an “inter-regional system” and drew up plans for a greatly expanded highway system, but the plans got bogged down in an argument over whether urban or rural areas were to be the greater beneficiaries, so it fell to Eisenhower to implement Roosevelt’s concept.

The title of Ted Koppel’s new book, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, sums up its message. Koppel writes grippingly about our electrical grid’s vulnerability and the possible consequences of a major cyberattack on it, which he considers likely. During the one nuclear near collision the United States had with the Soviet Union, the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, leaders could communicate with one another to prevent calamity. But now, according to Koppel, “for the first time in the history of warfare, small groups, even individuals, can undermine the critical infrastructure of a state.” He offers evidence that questions the soothing assurances of officials of the Department of Homeland Security that the electrical grid is “resilient” to attack. The malware in our adversaries’ computer systems could paralyze the nation, cripple our defense capacities, and cause major loss of lives. Koppel’s book is as incisive as it is disturbing.

The congressionally approved methods of paying for the recently passed bill to spend $305 billion over five years on building and repairing roads, bridges, and mass transit systems reflect the difficulty of finding ways to pay for infrastructure projects—or what are called in Washington lingo the “pay-fors.” The obvious approach of paying for roads with the proceeds of the gasoline tax, as has been done in the past, has been overtaken by the recent rampant and mindless anti-tax fever, with the result that the gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, when it was set at 18.4 cents per gallon—and wasn’t indexed for inflation.

Had inflation been taken into account, the gas tax would now be 30.1 cents per gallon—almost twice what it is now. When the tax was first imposed the price of gasoline was around $1.00 per gallon. After some periods when it was higher—usually due to shortages and Middle East wars—the price is again unusually low. According to the AAA, it’s now below $2.00 in forty-one states. The highest recent price was $3.91 in May 2011. Gasoline taxes in the United States are lower than in any other country except Mexico. Europeans pay the highest gas taxes in the world, from $6.00 to $10.00 per gallon. (Progress in making cars more fuel-efficient results in the gas tax bringing in less than it otherwise would.)

With the gas tax paying for only a portion of the $305 billion cost of the latest highway bill, members of Congress were creative in finding the funds to make up the difference. Perhaps the most troubling method they came up with was raiding the funds held by the Federal Reserve system in case of an emergency need for liquidity in the economy, or to rescue a bank—it’s referred to as the Fed’s “rainy day fund.” The Fed, not at all happy about its emergency fund being tapped to pay for a program irrelevant to its responsibilities, issued a statement saying, “Using the resources of the Federal Reserve to finance fiscal spending…infringes on the independence of the central bank and weakens fiscal discipline.”

Though this procedure wasn’t without precedent, it went much further than anything previously enacted in placing a limit on the Fed’s surplus. The highway program will obtain additional funds through a reduction in the amount of the dividends the Fed pays to banks (which own stock in the Fed). These provisions amount to unprecedented intrusion in its activities. The Fed is supposed to be independent from political interference but now the Republicans want to draw on and control its resources for their own political purposes.

Other sources of funds to pay for the highway bill are to be derived from selling millions of barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which has been used in the past for various purposes, including sales to decrease the deficit. The Republicans blithely assume that the oil would sell at about double the current price, and they also nurture the hope that putting the IRS’s job of collecting delinquent taxes in the hands of private collection agencies would result in more federal income that could be put toward improving highways and other transit projects. (Should these fantasy funds materialize, other agencies might also have uses for them.)

The very notion of federal responsibility in building the nation’s infrastructure wasn’t widely accepted in the nation’s early years. Henry Clay, with his “American System” to tie American states together through infrastructure payouts, is considered the architect of the idea, prominent in the first part of the nineteenth century, that there should be federal support for “internal improvements” in the forms of roads and canals in order to enable farmers to get their goods to markets. Clay saw infrastructure projects as a way to connect the country and foster communities that might otherwise die out for lack of transportation to and from them. Abraham Lincoln was an advocate of the same thing for the same reasons.

President Obama delivering remarks on infrastructure in the United States near the Tappan Zee Bridge and the construction of its replacement, Tarrytown, New York, May 2014
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
President Obama delivering remarks on infrastructure in the United States near the Tappan Zee Bridge and the construction of its replacement, Tarrytown, New York, May 2014

But the federal role was vastly increased by Franklin Roosevelt’s determination to rescue the American economy from the Great Depression: this led to a number of projects, including the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a project to lift the economy in a particularly hard-hit region that then pioneered producing clean energy. The New Deal also created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), inducing cooperatives to provide affordable energy to areas that private business felt weren’t worth serving. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) gave millions of unemployed workers jobs in constructing public works including highways, bridges, dams, parks, and public buildings. (Controversially, it also put artists and writers to work.) President Eisenhower understood Clay’s original point of binding the country together through public projects when he picked up on Roosevelt’s nascent plans for a grand highway system. Government, industry, and universities laid the basis for our technology industry, and a federal system of connecting universities with a research project of the Pentagon led to the Internet.

But today no great vision guides our policies for building and maintaining the arteries of transportation—ports, dams, and bridges—as well as the electrical grid, even the broadband system. Such far-seeing government measures as Roosevelt and Eisenhower championed are inconceivable now.

President Obama’s stimulus program, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law in 2009, provided a little over $800 billion to, as the White House put it, “jumpstart” the economy by creating jobs and also, the White House said, to make “a down payment on addressing long-neglected challenges.” But members of Congress in both parties held down the amount that the federal government was to spend on helping the economy recover. Only three Republican senators voted for the program and no House Republicans supported it.

This was the first legislative demonstration of the Republicans’ intention from the outset to oppose everything Obama tried to do. But Democrats, nervous about being labeled as “spenders,” told the White House not to submit a request for what could end up costing a trillion dollars. Many assumed that, as usual, Congress would raise the amount of money in the bill, but contrary to custom the Senate lowered the amount approved by the House. The House had promised some funds for social programs unrelated to stimulating the economy. And the emphasis of the stimulus program was on generating an early payoff, lots of jobs being created quickly to combat the recession. The preference was for “shovel-ready” projects rather than longer-term ones. While this was understandable, especially with limited funds, a Democratic senator told me, “We missed a major opportunity.”

President Obama has continued to call for increased investment in infrastructure, earlier this year requesting an expenditure of $478 billion, and the Republicans have continued to oppose him. In his final State of the Union speech, the president called on Congress to “put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a twenty-first-century transportation system.” Hillary Clinton recently proposed an investment of $275 billion over five years for roads, bridges, expanded broadband service, public transit, airports, freight trains, and water systems. This is a modest plan in the light of the country’s infrastructure needs. (Bernie Sanders has called for a program costing $1 trillion over five years, which the Clinton campaign derides as too expensive.) But Clinton’s plan was adequate to win her the endorsement of two important construction unions: the Laborers’ International Union and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

Missing from Clinton’s program was an answer to the vexing matter of how to pay for it. Most would be paid for by federal spending; Clinton also said she would fund some of her infrastructure program through “business tax reform.” This is understood to mean using the taxes that would be paid by corporations that would bring their profits back from overseas in exchange for a federal tax discount—a one-time source of new funds.

The problems are that this “repatriation” scheme has yet to be approved by Congress and if it’s to be part of a large tax reform bill there’s no telling when or whether it will be enacted; moreover, proponents of other programs also have their eye on the same potential sums. Clinton suggested, as President Obama had, the establishment of an investment bank, using the proceeds from a proposed reauthorization of the Build America Bonds program that was supposed to be part of the stimulus, but Obama’s proposal for this, too, has been stuck in Congress. Donald Trump also talks about a stimulus program but he hasn’t yet said how he would pay for it.

The arguments in favor of a major American initiative for fixing and building our infrastructure are entirely convincing: this would improve the country’s physical condition and create jobs for the middle-class sector that’s been most hurt by the recession and has lost out in the widening income gap. If an infrastructure program were done right these jobs would be around for a long time. We might even become an optimistic country again. But it’s going to take more than “leadership.” It may require even more widespread paralyzed traffic, the collapse of numerous bridges, and perhaps a revolt in parts of the country that have inadequate broadband. In other words, we may well need to incur more chaos and ruin and even deaths before we come to our senses.