Our Aging Infrastructure: Peril and Opportunity | Economy | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Get ready for Infrastructure Week. From May 13 to 20, lawmakers and stakeholders in the nation’s capital and beyond will be engaged in tackling our most pressing infrastructure needs—or not. In this chaotic hour, it seems that 2019’s Infrastructure Week could easily end up like last year’s: more of an Internet joke than an engine of policy.

“Infrastructure” is a word that covers a lot of territory. Roads and bridges immediately come to mind, but the term encompasses many of the systems that support civil society: energy, broadband, schools, water, waste, railways, and other public transportation.

As a nation, we’re not doing very well at keeping our systems running. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a thorough report on the state of the nation’s infrastructure. The most recent report, issued in 2017, gave American infrastructure a dismal grade of D+, citing aging systems, neglected maintenance, and critical systems that are not meeting public needs, or are in danger of immediate failure. Decaying infrastructure is costing US households an average of $3,400 a year in lost income, the report found. “Our nation’s infrastructure is aging, underperforming, and in need of sustained care and action,” the ASCE wrote.

The ASCE’s estimate of the spending required to bring American infrastructure up to snuff: $4.59 trillion over the span of 10 years. It’s a number that has increased with every new ASCE report. As any engineer will tell you, the less diligent you are at maintaining your systems, the more expensive they will be to fix down the road.

The need to make federal investments in American infrastructure is that rare issue on which Democrats and the Trump administration can agree—theoretically, at any rate. So far, little real action on this front has materialized, and the Trump administration’s disorganized efforts to tackle infrastructure have repeatedly been derailed by scandal and outrage. Elaina Plott, White House correspondent for The Atlantic, writes:

Somewhere along the way, Infrastructure Week became an internet meme, a symbol of the White House’s inability to stay on message and to keep the president on message, too. The administration’s repeated attempts to drive a policy conversation had become something like a bizarre game of telephone, the initial message about fixing roads and bridges somehow morphing into talk of neo-Nazis and porn stars. Yet even if each Infrastructure Week generated no actual legislative progress, it at least made for an amusing intersection of Washington and internet culture.

This year, Plott argues, the story may be different. Reports of recent closed-door negotiations between President Donald Trump, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hint at an agreement in the offing, and common ground on the sorts of projects an infrastructure bill should fund:

Schumer said “there was good will in this meeting” between the White House and Democrats—a tone that was “different than some of the other meetings we’ve had,” he added.

But within days of the meeting, Republicans went on the attack against the bill, alarmed at the prospect of $2 trillion in new federal spending. The Hill reports that there is broad Republican opposition to the bill:

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Congress has a much better chance of passing legislation to lower prescription drug prices than advancing an infrastructure package.

“You would have to have a gas tax to do it, and we’re not for a gas tax,” Meadows, who speaks regularly to Trump, told The Hill on Thursday. “I mean, $1 trillion you could maybe do; $2 trillion, there is no way to get the money other than raising taxes and there is not an appetite for an increase in taxes by Republicans in the House or the Senate.”

Mara Liasson, who covers politics for NPR, said on last Sunday’s Weekend Edition that the deal—like more than 50,000 American bridges—is already falling apart:

I give it slim odds here...He immediately got pushback from his own chief of staff, from Republicans in the Senate, including the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. They think that's too much money. They certainly don't want to raise the gas tax to pay for it. And it's just another example of how the president is having trouble working the levers of his own government. He couldn't get his own Homeland Security department to do what he wanted them to do at the border. And if he can't make a deal with Mick Mulvaney, the chief of staff, and Mitch McConnell, he's certainly not going to be able to make one with Nancy Pelosi.


What Should We Fund?

Infrastructure, when it’s working, is invisible. When it fails dramatically—like the still-contaminated water system in Flint, Michigan, or the bridge at Florida International University that collapsed and killed six last March—it makes headlines. To get ahead of the cycle of disaster and recovery, legislators and civil engineers need to look down the road and identify trouble before it starts.

Looking even further ahead, a large federal investment in infrastructure represents a rare chance for legislators to examine our priorities on a broad scale. How do we balance spending on urban and rural areas? That’s a tension that frequently emerges in our own region; during the recent state budget process, several New York State Republican lawmakers publicly pressed Gov. Andrew Cuomo for more upstate infrastructure funding, accusing the governor of focusing too much on downstate needs.

Steven Pressman, an economist at the University of Colorado, argues in an article for GreenBiz that infrastructure spending should focus on areas that will give a boost to the households that are already struggling the most. “Spending in areas that will help struggling working and middle-class families hurt by ever-rising economic inequality would be a good place to start,” Pressman says, advocating for a focus on water systems, roads and rails.

Jarrett Murphy, writing for City Limits, goes even further, arguing for a redefinition of what we mean by ‘infrastructure.’ “Why are highway off-ramps and airport runways considered forms of critical infrastructure, while permanent affordable housing as well as public lands and other forms of open space are not?” Murphy writes. In arguing for a broader look at how we manage our resources and who they serve, Murphy raises provocative questions about who infrastructure is for and how it transforms communities.

As City Limits reported a couple weeks back, the question of how the US uses its land—from urban parcels to farmland to open space—is increasingly urgent and affects disparate strands of our political fabric. The needs of low-income urban renters, independent farmers, families vulnerable to the worst impacts of climate change and people who recreate or work on public lands are very different. But the future for all of those households will be shaped by how the federal government weighs the public-interest value of the land it controls, regulates, influences or invests in.

If we let our existing infrastructure continue to deteriorate without proper maintenance and upkeep, we will squander the investments of those who came before us. But if we fail to do the harder work of making sure our priorities are in line with the needs of a changing world, our systems will fail to serve those who come after. 

It's a daunting challenge, and it seems unlikely that our current national leadership, mired in scandal and stalemate, will be able to rise to it. But many of the systems that support us are local to communities, and local leadership matters. 

What are the most pressing infrastructure needs in your area? Let us know at [email protected] or in the comments below.

Other Visions:
Railsea, China Miéville. This rollicking sci-fi adventure is set in a poisonous world: the railsea, a seemingly endless tangle of railways, abandoned by its long-forgotten creators and beset on all sides by monstrous beasts. Miéville's novel owes a mighty debt to Moby-Dick, but it's also a gripping tale about the technology we build and the dangerous reverence we hold for it. 

Lissa Harris

Lissa Harris is a staff writer at The River and a volunteer firefighter. She was the founding editor of the Watershed Post, a site that covered local news in the rural Catskills from 2010 to 2017.
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