EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/It’s Public Works Week. Rebuild a bridge
May 20-26 is National Public Works Week. To celebrate, cities and counties across the country are upgrading their wastewater treatment plants, building libraries and rehabilitating decrepit bridges. Yeah, right.
The nation’s public infrastructure touches all of us every day. But, somehow, we don’t seem to get it. We think of the California energy crisis, flight delays, waterborne illnesses and potholes as distinct crises. They are not. They are all tiny dead bugs in the vast web that is the basis of American life.
In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its most recent “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” which assesses the quality of the nation’s roads, bridges, transit, aviation, schools, drinking water, wastewater, dams, solid waste, hazardous waste, navigable waterways and energy. The results? Well, put it this way: If the country were a third-grader, it would be grounded for a very long time.
According to ASCE, overall, we get a D+. Solid waste got the best grade, a C+, while schools got the worst, a D-. The good news is that both grades are improvements — from C- and F — over the grades issued in 1998.
“As with most things in life, you get what you pay for,” says ASCE President Robert Bein. “When you’ve got rolling blackouts in California, bridges crumbling in Milwaukee and kids in Kansas City attending class in a former boys’ restroom, something is desperately wrong.”
ASCE estimates that, to fix the problems, the country needs a $1.3 trillion infusion of infrastructure cash over the next five years. The Environmental Protection Agency says that it will cost more than $150 billion over the next 20 years just to fix the nation’s 76,000 water systems.
That is not chump change. But it is absolutely do-able. U.S. taxpayers already are funding bizarre projects and programs (the zillion dollar Osprey, a helicopter/plane combination, the biggest accomplishment of which thus far is several spectacular crashes; and all those fun pork barrel items like the $15 million Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was able to coax out of Congress for a study of the Aurora Borealis).
ASCE and groups like the American Public Works Association must look at those expenditures and want to bang their collective heads against the wall. What we need now is a kind of war-time commitment to fixing our infrastructure. What we’ve got is a bunch of Capitol Hill wussies who would rather yak about tax cuts and spend their time worrying about the fact that, somewhere, there might be a county with nothing in it named for Ronald Reagan. They can get away with this because infrastructure is not high on the average Joe’s priority list.
ASCE and APWA would like to change that. But it’s an uphill battle. With potholes.