Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear more from Stephen Flynn on AC360° at 10pm ET.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/01/28/infrastructure.report.card/art.traffic.gi.jpg caption="The civil engineers said the nation's D- roads cost motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs."]
National security expert
America’s infrastructure is in the political spotlight as an increasingly contentious piece of President Barack Obama’s $835 billion economic stimulus package. Republicans like Rep. Harold Roger, R-KY characterize the package as “a rampant spending spree.” The White House maintains that it is the jumpstart the nation’s moribund economy needs to move us out of a severe recession. Missing from this debate is any real acknowledgment that the critical foundations that underpin our modern society are literally crumbling around us, imperiling our safety and security, quality of life, and economic competitiveness.
How bad off is America’s inventory of infrastructure? On January 27, 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineersissued their quadrennial report card on 15 sectors. The grades are not the kind you would have wanted to bring home to your parents: four C’s and eleven D’s. Bottoming out the evaluation are drinking waters systems, levees, wasterwater systems, inland waterway locks, and roads which all were assigned a D- grade. Think about this: water is the basic element of life. To get it to most of our homes and offices whenever we turn on the faucet or flush the toilet requires a vast network of underground pipes that are in such bad repair, we are losing an estimated seven billion gallons of clean drinking water each and every day.
There are 85,000 dams in the U.S., with an average age of 51-years-old. Inspectors have found that 4,000 of them are deficient, 1,819 of which are rated as high hazard because when they fail, people downstream could find themselves with a wall of water suddenly in their living rooms or their homes carried off their foundations. Remember those levees that failed during Hurricane Katrina? Across the United States there are an estimated 100,000 miles of levees that are locally owned and sporadically maintained. The mileage is an estimate because the federal government has never inventoried these levees and no one knows their condition. What we do know is that most are a half-century old and have been neglected, generating a tab of more than $100 billion to repair them.
The 2009 ASCE report reads like a survey that might have been conducted on the eve of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Our airports, rail, and roads have gone from very bad to worse in the past four years. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System is more than 50 years old and has not been aging gracefully as virtually every American commuter knows. Last year U.S. drivers spent an estimated 4.2 billion hours stuck in traffic. The national power grid has seen 25 percent more demand since 1990, with little meaningful upgrade in its overall capacity. Utility executives literally hold their breath whenever demand spikes during hot July or August days. Without a projected electric utility investment of $1.5 trillion by 2030, brownouts and even blackouts will be routine occurrences.
Our young people have no memory of a time when great public works were a source of national pride. It was our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents who celebrated the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Holland Tunnel, and the Hoover Dam. We once had a transportation system that was the envy of the world. Now we are better known for our congested highways, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains and a primitive air traffic control system. Our global image is increasingly one of a superpower that is rotting from within: the I35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007, a drowned New Orleans in 2005, and a blacked-out Northeast in 2003.
Americans should be deeply embarrassed and outraged. Like spoiled and lazy kids, we have failed to maintain the fine mansion we have inherited. Instead we have been squandering the infrastructure legacy built with the treasure, tenacity, and inventiveness of our forebears. For nearly 30 years we have been kidding ourselves into believing that we can continue to be safe and prosperous nation by taking for granted and recklessly neglecting the very critical foundations that has made our society the most advanced in the world.
Washington needs to come clean with the American people. Democrats need to stop talking about reinvesting in our infrastructure as a short-term miracle cure for boosting our sluggish economy and Republicans need to wean themselves off of labeling all public investment as a robbing taxpayers of their hard earned dollars. Together our elected officials need to roll-up their sleeves to do the hard work of providing the leadership, setting priorities, mustering the resources to address the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. This is a task that cannot be completed overnight, but requires a decade-long commitment.
Beyond the “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects in the current economic stimulus package, President Obama needs to establish a bipartisan commission, supported by the National Academies of Science, and organizations like the American Society of Engineers to review the infrastructure needs identified by governors and mayors and create a national must-do list based on risk and criticality. While not very sexy, top priority needs to be provided to funding routine maintenance and repairs where each dollar saves up to $16 on the cost of major reconstruction or rehabilitation. It's like paying for regular oil changes so you don’t have to replace the car engine.
In the end, mustering the resources to pay for the upkeep of critical infrastructure is a sound short- and long-term investment. It provides well-paying jobs for working Americans while bolstering our economic competitiveness and improving our quality of life. It makes our nation more secure by removing the kinds of vulnerabilities that terrorists or future adversaries may be tempted to target or exploit. Finally, we have an obligation to our children to pass along an infrastructure legacy that is greener, and more sustainable than one we have inherited.
Editor's Note: Stephen Flynn is the Ira A. Lipman Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation (Random House, 2007).