On August 1, 2007, just a week after my family’s visit to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, the massive Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others. This was a bridge that had been deemed “structurally deficient” by the federal government 17 years prior to the collapse. However, it continued in service as Minnesota’s second-busiest bridge, carrying 140,000 vehicles each day over corroding metal plates that were inevitably headed toward catastrophic failure.
This dramatic incident riveted the nation’s attention on our aging, crumbling infrastructure. President George W. Bush visited the collapse site and pledged federal support for the disaster. The network news anchors rushed to the scene for their nightly newscasts and cable pundits spent weeks examining the deferred maintenance on bridge nationwide. Drivers everywhere were shocked to learn that 75,000 other bridges across the country were considered to be substandard. Across the country, journalists demanded information on bridges in their cities.
It was all big news… until it wasn’t. The next national crisis-de-jour demanded our attention and we moved on from an issue that was decidedly un-sexy. Bridges in disrepair just couldn’t hold our attention for long.
In May 2015, an Amtrak train traveling through a Philadelphia neighborhood sped up to 100 miles an hour and derailed, killing eight people and injuring 200. The line lacked modern electronic controls to regulate train speed. It was the worst train crash in the Northeast since 1987, occurring on the same section of curved track that caused a 1943 crash that took the lives of 79 people. In the aftermath of the 2015 crash, media dug up relatively unknown studies of our nation’s aging railroad infrastructure. The Northeast Corridor advisory commission had warned in 2013 that there was a need for $52 billion in repairs to railroad lines, including rails that are more than 100 years old in some places. Those dusty reports had never made the kind of headlines that the Philly crash did. But within a few days of the horrific Philadelphia accident, the news cycle had once again moved on to other topics.
This winter’s crisis involved corrosive lead water pipes in Flint, Michigan, that have exposed between 6,000 and 12,000 children to high lead levels in their drinking water. President Obama declared a federal state of emergency and sent in help from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and Homeland Security. The costs of fixing the water system problems in Flint are projected at up to $1.5 billion. But there is no estimate of the costs that will be incurred by lifetimes of health problems for the affected children. Presidential candidates attempted to make political gains by speaking out about the lack of investment in protecting the low-income people who live in Flint. But this crisis, too, is headed off the front pages and soon will become a distant memory for most Americans.
The sad fact is, our nation just can’t get interested in spending our tax dollars on such mundane projects as rebuilding basic infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers has done a study of the conditions of our nation’s roads and bridges, dams and levees, ports, wastewater and drinking water treatment plants, airports, solid waste facilities and other fundamental building blocks of society. Across the board, the ASCE report card gives grades of Cs and Ds. Our nation’s overall GPA for these projects is a D+. The organization says there is need for an investment in $3.6 trillion in our national infrastructure.
Where would that kind of money come from? Our nation is already facing a mountain of debt that is swamping the federal budget. But the opportunity to attract the infrastructure crisis is right in front of us, ready to be seized. The dramatic fall in world oil prices since the summer of 2014 has resulted in a huge windfall for all Americans. The average price of a gallon of gas has fallen from $3.60 per gallon in June 2014 to a current national average of about $1.75. CNN projected that Americans saved $130 billion on gasoline costs alone in 2015. Economists predict the world glut of oil will continue to hold prices down for the foreseeable future.
If our state and federal government leaders can peer through the amnesia they have developed over the infrastructure failures we have experienced, they can see that increased taxes on fuels can be enacted without damaging the nation’s economy or placing an undue burden on taxpayers who have built their family budgets based on gas costs above $3 per gallon. By raising fuel taxes, we can begin the long overdue repairs of basic infrastructure, while keeping the pressure on consumers to maintain a conservation mindset in regard to the burning of fossil fuels. Rarely does history provide such a set of win-win economic choices. If we don’t grab this chance, when will we ever find the will and the resources to rebuild the fundamental systems put in place by our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents?
Wikipedia article on the Minnesota I-35W Bridge Collapse
Wikipedia article on the Philadelphia train derailment
Wikipedia article on the Flint water crisis
“Crash draws attention to rail infrastructure” by Bart Jansen and Thomas Frank
ASCE report card
18-Month Average Retail Price Chart for gasoline in the United States
“Americans saved $540 on gas this year” by Chris Isidore
“Years After Fatal Bridge Collapse, A Lack of Investment in Infrastructure” by Mark Boyd