Boosting America’s infrastructure grade

March 25, 2013

Caution should usually be exercised when it comes to using polls to determine public policy – sometimes what the vox populi demands contains contradictory goals with no painful trade-offs attached.

A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month, however, shows that the general public perhaps possesses more wisdom than their policymakers when it comes to our nation’s infrastructure.

Gallup found that 77 percent of those queried supported a federal program to put people to work on urgent infrastructure repairs. Seventy-five percent also got behind the idea of a federal jobs creation law designed to create more than 1 million new jobs (though that number dropped to 72 percent when it was said the government would have to spend money on the program).

The poll arrived at a propitious moment. The American Society for Civil Engineers released its quadrennial report card on the nation’s infrastructure last week, and the United States’ bridges, roads, dams and aviation system received a “D-plus.”

That is, of course, the kind of grade that would get you grounded for a couple of weeks. But, take heart – since 2009, the grade has inched up from a straightforward “D” thanks in part to the economic stimulus that was enacted at the beginning of President Obama’s first term. Nonetheless, the engineers contend that we need to spend about $3.6 trillion on our infrastructure in order to boost it up to a “B” level by 2020, a full $1.6 trillion more than is budgeted.

Individually, hazardous waste cleanup received a “D,” as did aviation, drinking water, dams and roads. Bright spots – relatively speaking – include a “C-plus” for bridges and railways, and a “C-minus” for public parks and recreation. The American Society for Civil Engineers broke down its findings on a state-by-state basis, giving Pennsylvania an overall “C-minus,” with its worst grade reserved for – surprise! – roads, which were given a “D-minus.”

Granted, the engineers have a vested interest in seeing America’s infrastructure improve. The more money poured into infrastructure, the better their employment prospects. But average Americans who will never once have to figure out how an exit ramp or runway should be configured also have a vital stake in this argument. Aside from the everyday costs and inconvenience incurred from deteriorating infrastructure, whether it’s repairs to vehicles, time spent stuck in traffic, or the faucet that goes dry due to a water main break, a crumbling infrastructure also reduces our economic competitiveness. Increased transportation costs for businesses lowers productivity and decreases the amount of cash they can devote to wages, hiring and innovation. And that, in turn, hurts families who have less money to spend or have to look harder to find employment.

In a global marketplace, having a subpar infrastructure puts us at an additional disadvantage against countries with bullet trains, smooth highways and bridges that don’t make your knuckles turn white as you cross them.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who, since leaving Harrisburg in 2011, has been leading a coalition to promote additional infrastructure spending, told The Washington Post last week, “When we’re talking about infrastructure, we never compute the cost of inaction. The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of doing something. It’s become this literally crazed idea that spending money is bad. Federal governments and state governments have to spend money on certain things that are important.”

Put simply, and to use a shopworn sentiment, sometimes you have to spend money to make money. It’s like buying and owning a house. You can’t put your money down on it, but then not put another nickel in it and expect it to remain habitable, never mind offer a return on your investment. We should think of infrastructure spending not as some sort of government boondoggle but an investment in our own future.



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