IT'S not clear why a major section of the nation's interstate highway system collapsed last Wednesday night over the Mississippi River in Minnesota, causing at least five deaths and indefinitely severing an important transportation link. But one thing has been all too clear for decades: America is neglecting its vital physical infrastructure, and the bill is coming due.
As a nation, we've long borrowed from our future; everybody knows about the inevitable Social Security and Medicare crises coming in the next three decades as the number of retirees expands in relation to the number of workers. Far fewer people understand that we've also been borrowing from our past.
The federal highway system, the backbone of America's modern economy, turned 50 last year. But we haven't spent enough, or thought enough, to keep it - and other physical assets that previous generations built - in good working order.
We spend only 60 percent of what's needed to keep roads in good condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In New York state, for instance, 35 percent of major roads are in "poor or mediocre condition," says the ASCE, while 38 percent of bridges are "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete."
Yes, even where they're safe enough, transportation assets suffer from obsolescence, as traffic and vehicle weights increase each year while road spending lags. The Tappan Zee Bridge, for one, needs a major upgrade - not only because it's past its useful life span, but because it handles far more traffic today than it was ever meant to. Anyone who endures rush-hour traffic on the nation's major urban highways knows that the same is true for their roads, too.
And it's not just roads and highways; mass-transit assets in major cities badly need upgrades, as well. The ASCE gave the nation's infrastructure - including airports, bridges, dams, water and wastewater systems, rails and roads - a grade of "D" two years ago, warning that "with each passing day, aging or overburdened infrastructure threatens America's economy and our quality of life."
More to the point: New Orleans's decimation after Katrina wasn't a natural disaster - it happened because the city's levees failed.
It's easy to see how all this happened. If the '50s were the decade of infrastructure, the '60s were the decade of entitlements and social services - and those '60s never ended: Just five years ago, a Republican Congress scrambled to add a huge new prescription-drug benefit to the 1965 Medicare program.
Even when we do spend money on infrastructure, it often suffers from confusion of purpose. Congress treats federal transportation bills as opportunities for political earmarks, rather than for rational growth. And states uses infrastructure projects as ways to funnel money to politically favored contractors and powerful construction unions, rather than as worthwhile undertakings to be done as efficiently and effectively as possible.
At the state level, Medicaid spending dwarfs infrastructure spending, and most governors don't sound the alarm. One exception is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who expressed grave concern about his own state's levees and other assets in the months after Katrina - and has now won voter approval to float tens of billions of dollars in bonds to fund infrastructure upgrades.
But Schwarzenegger and California's Legislature don't want to cut back on anything else to pay for that investment, preferring both bridges and butter - and that's not sustainable for long.
What of New York City? Well, it sounds great that we've spent $3 billion in the past eight years fixing up our bridges. But a billion dollars doesn't go very far these days when it comes to infrastructure - and in the same time period, the city has spent about $40 billion on Medicaid.
When you spend money to fix a bridge, you get a fixed bridge; when you spend money on social services, you get . . . to spend more money on social services.
And yes, the private sector has a bigger role to play - but it's no panacea: Even when a private-sector firm agrees to take some responsibility and risk on an infrastructure project, a government entity has to pay the private company to do so. That happens either directly, by paying the company with tax dollars for its work, or indirectly, for example, by signing over drivers' toll payments directly to the company. Private firms can introduce efficiencies, sure - but they don't absolve the government of its responsibility to invest in public infrastructure.
The problem isn't just the possibility of future disasters. To understand the true scope of what we're facing, think about that other boring problem that nobody likes to worry about: Our unfunded obligations to Social Security and Medicare, incurred by borrowing from the future for so long. Many independent experts say that even with robust economic and productivity growth, America simply can't grow its way out of these entitlement-program problems.
We'll see about that. But we definitely can't grow our way out if, during the very years when we need the growth to fund benefits for retiring baby boomers, our economy is straitjacketed by failing, outdated physical infrastructure.
Our future obligations continue to grow while the assets that we have - gifts from the past - deteriorate.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/08062007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/bridges_vs__butter_opedcolumnists_nicole_gelinas.htm