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Blasting American Infrastructure Away

It's not the terrorists who are targeting and destroying the heart of America; it's Bush & Co.!
 
 
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CODE RED, AMERICANS! Screaming, flashing, neon-bright, God Almighty RED!!! Not just a single disaster, but multiple, biblical-level catastrophes are being plotted by a diabolical, heretofore unnamed network of terrorists who're out to destroy America with an unprecedented series of attacks.

They have their sights on our busiest airports. Also our dams, with the potential for horrific mass destruction. In addition, our municipal water systems and unified electric-power grids are on their list. Plus, we have proof that these ruthless cowards, in zealous pursuit of their own narrow ideology, have already spread into every area of our country with copycat plans to bring down countless numbers of America's schools, directly targeting our children.

These terrorists are not connected to Osama, the "Axis of Evil," or any other foreign-based network. Instead, they are homegrown extremists, and they are doing more long-term, systemic damage to our country than al Qaeda could possibly imagine, much less pull off. Their leaders are sitting undetected in the White House, Congress, governors' mansions, and city halls from coast to coast. They do not attack overtly but covertly by passively allowing such essential public works as our highways, bridges, tunnels, dams, levees, water-purification plants, pipelines, chemical-storage tanks, libraries, and schools to deteriorate, erode, corrode, leak, collapse, fossilize, and otherwise come apart, sapping our nation's strength and security.

If there were the merest suspicion that some group of Arabicspeaking Islamic extremists was plotting even a fraction of this damage, George W's hair would burst into flames, Congress would throw open the doors of Fort Knox to fund retaliation, martial law would be declared, and every Muslim in America would be rounded up. But our "leaders" of both political parties are the ones doing this to our country, without paying so much as a political price, much less being shackled and hauled off to Gitmo.

They have escaped public exposure and punishment because (1) "infrastructure" is a non-sexy, mostly silent asset; (2) the destruction of America's vital infrastructure is happening by acts of omission, not commission, and (3) the Powers That Be have found a way to make their assault a point of political pride, spinning it as a valiant effort to cut taxes and defund Big Government.

From George W to George W

Granted, people (including me) don't like Big Government, but as we learned from Bush's Katrina fiasco, we damned sure do want essential government. This has been the case from the start of our nation, and the boneheaded, shortsighted, self-aggrandizing, "kill government" ideologues of today are enemies of history, common sense, progress, and America's public welfare.

The first W--George Washington --was on board with using public funds to provide the new country with a solid infrastructure, including an extensive system of postal roads and canals. Jefferson stepped up with tax dollars for the Louisiana Purchase. Even in a time of civil war, Honest Abe saw the need for a transcontinental railroad, the Homestead Act, and a public system of land-grant colleges. Teddy Roosevelt--a Republican-- pushed for our sterling network of national parks and created the National Forest Service. FDR put America to work building courthouses and dams, planting windbreaks and arbors, creating music and plays--jewels that are still with us. Ike, a fiscal conservative, saw the need to launch the Interstate Highway System. Lyndon Johnson fought for crucial investments in hospitals, schools, water systems, and parks.

From the early 1950s into the 1970s, total public spending on America's physical plant (including money put up by local, state, and federal agencies) amounted to about 3% of our Gross Domestic Product. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, this investment in the public good fell victim to posturing budget whackers and dropped well below 2% of our GDP--a cut of more than a one third.

The situation has worsened under the Bushites, who are sworn enemies of public investment in anything but the military and their corporate cronies. While federal infrastructure outlays in the 1960s were equal to the amounts spent by state and local governments, locals are now putting up three times what the feds spend, with the federal investment shrinking this year to an abysmal 0.7% of GDP.

Of course, George W has a fib to fit every figure, including this deceit: "Infrastructure is always a difficult issue," he said recently. "And I, frankly, feel like we've upheld our responsibility at the federal level with the highway bill." Well, frankly, George, you haven't. Not even close. Experts point out that your $286 billion bill is more than $30 billion short of the bare minimumneeded simply to bring America's once proud highway system up to the low standard of "adequate." And what you provide is way short of what's required for rail, mass transit, smart highways, and other transportation needs.

Instead of offering an overarching vision of a forward-thinking transportation plan for our growing, sprawling population, this blob of a bill is a catchall for special-interest projects funded on the basis of insider influence, not need.

Citizens Against Government Waste reports that the bill so loudly touted by Bush puts $1 out of every $14 into pork projects. Included, for example, is $223 million for a ridiculous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, linking the small town of Ketchican to Gravina Island (population 50)--locations which are already linked by a seven-minute ferry ride running every half hour. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens wanted this piece of pricey pork so badly that he threatened to quit Congress if his colleagues did not approve the bridge. Now, there was a golden opportunity to make two gains for the public interest in one stroke! But, alas, Congress and the White House sided with Stevens.

Third World USA

Any homeowner knows that if you ignore a leaking roof, you'll soon find your ceiling buckling, sheetrock crumbling, paint peeling, studs rotting… and a world of misery. The same is true of our national house, and the decay is increasingly obvious and ominous.

  • We now know that the ghastly drowning of New Orleans was not the result of Hurricane Katrina, but the failure of presidents, Congress, and the Army Corps of Engineers to fortify the levees--a disaster that had been predicted and was preventable. The people of this iconic American city (60% of whom have yet to return), are victims of right-wing, antigovernment theorists who insist on reducing public safety to "cost-benefit" formulas-- cold calculations that do not count consequences that occur only sometimes. Thus, no need to have a First World levee system (a lá the Dutch), since Category 4 and 5 storms aren't that frequent… even though they are inevitable and catastrophic.
  • Two years ago, during what was supposed to be a brief interruption for routine maintenance on locks and a dam on the Ohio River, upstream from Louisville, the system had to be shut down for eight weeks because deterioration was far worse than expected. This meant that coal being barged to power plants that supply electricity throughout the Midwest was stopped. A power blackout was only narrowly averted in this case, but such shutdowns of locks on the Ohio and Mississippi are increasing as infrastructure funds dry up. "If I had more money," the head of civil works says solemnly, "I could reduce these shutdowns to a level that I might consider satisfactory." The Commission on Public Infrastructure reports that half of the Corps of Engineers' 257 locks on our inland waterways are functionally obsolete.
  • The bursting of even a small dam can be a disaster. We regularly drive over dams, but we can't see the internal structures, so we don't give dam safety any thought-- until a dam fails. Then the TV has saturation coverage of the issue-- but soon it disappears again. Since 1998, the number of unsafe dams in the U.S. has risen by a third to more than 3,500, with the number of "high-hazard" dams up by 1,000. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reports that $10.1 billion is needed over the next 12 years just to fix dams that are in such critical shape they pose a direct risk to human life.
  • After the school-shooting horror in Pennsylvania Amish country, George W convened a quickie, made-for-TV "conference" on school safety, designed more for midterm electioneering than for producing any action. No one mentioned, however, that our leaders are letting America's school facilities deteriorate so badly that schoolrooms themselves have become unsafe. Collapsing ceilings, lead paint, crumbling stairways, broken windows, asbestos, radon, malfunctioning heaters and plumbing, lack of insulation, massive overcrowding, toxic waste, and other problems persist and are growing worse as maintenance and construction budgets are shortchanged at all levels of government. A 1999 federal report found that 14 million of our children were attending dilapidated schools--a record so sorry that the feds have refused to issue any safety reports since. But according to the National Education Association, at least one third of America's 80,000 schools are in need of extensive repair or replacement. In 2000, the NEA estimated that $268 billion is needed just to bring school conditions up as far as "good." "Excellent" requires much more.
  • Thanks to deteriorating water works and polluted water sources, it's no longer an oddity to have health warnings and "boil water" mandates attached to our tap water. A 2003 survey of conditions in 19 cities by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that one (Chicago) rated excellent in water quality and five could claim good, while eight earned only fair and five poor. Yet as of last year, federal funding for upgrading our drinking-water infrastructure was less than 10% of the national need, and the Bushites continue to hold it at this inadequate level. The watchdog group Food and Water Watch says that to protect public health, America needs to invest $277 billion over the next 20 years in improving our 55,000 community drinking-water systems.
  • Road and bridge conditions all across the country aren't just a mess--they're deadly. ASCE reports that bad and congested roads are a hidden tax that runs us $54 billion a year in car/truck repairs and excess operating costs, forces us to spend an average of 47 hours a year stuck in traffic (burning 2.3 billion gallons of gasoline in our idling vehicles), and--worst of all-- causes some 13,000 highway deaths each year. Bridges, too, are a threat; ASCE finds that 27% of America's spans are now structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, requiring $9.4 billion every year for the next 20 years to repair the deficiencies.

America's backbone

George W insists that he has made America "strong and safe," referring to the hundreds of billions of dollars he has dumped into Iraq and homeland security. Actually, he has failed the strength and safety test even on his foreign watch. But internally--where such essential physical networks as schools, dams, water systems, libraries, power lines, rails, parks, and airports are the vertebrae of our nation's backbone--the no-tax/no-government mantra of Bushite ideologues (with the complicity of spineless Democrats in Congress) has left America a fragile and vulnerable nation.

Last year, ASCE compared the conditions in 12 categories of our nation's infrastructure to conditions in 2001. From wastewater to the power grid, schools to airports, the 2005 overall grade had slipped down to a D from the D+ it got four years earlier. Of the 12 categories, only 2 had a slightly improved grade, 3 stayed the same, and 7 grew worse. No category rated either an A or B – only C's (mediocre) and D's (poor). The highest grade for any category was a C+. ASCE president William Henry blamed this pathetic, Third World level of performance directly on our current "patch and pray" approach to America's crucial infrastructure.

Infrastructure is more than just enjoying good roads and bridges. It is the key to a functioning society-- to attaining good jobs, supporting a middle class, producing a high quality of life, and achieving the common good. For all of their pretensions about being self-made, self-reliant entities, the corporate powers could not function without the public infrastructure that so many of them scorn, try to privatize, and seek to defund.

One delightful example of the power of public works is the 2.5 mile Riverwalk that meanders so beautifully through the heart of downtown San Antonio. With its broad walkways, 21 unique bridges, 31 native sandstone stairways, numerous public plazas, and gorgeous flora, this "Paseo del Rio" along the banks of the San Antonio River has become a tourist magnet. Drawing millions of visitors, it's home to a plethora of shops, restaurants, bars, strolling musicians, festivals, and fun. Riverwalk is second only to the Alamo as the city's defining attraction, and the local business establishment touts it worldwide as a masterpiece of the American marketplace.

What the corporate honchos don't broadcast, however, is that Riverwalk was a WPA project, built between 1939 and 1941 with federal money as part of FDR's National Recovery program. At the time, business moguls derided it as a "make-work" project.

Why not excellence?

ASCE's scorecard concludes that America must invest $1.6 trillion just to bring our basic infrastructure up to a grade of B, which is still short of "excellent." Though "good"is better than the "poor" level where we now reside, is that an acceptable aspiration for the richest country on earth? Come on--the Bushites are weak, but the American people are strong, with far bigger dreams of what our society can be than merely "keeping up" with the middling nations.

Let's reinvest in ourselves! Bring the troops home, move money out of the bloated corporate-military machine, put the ultrarich back on the tax rolls--and put millions of Americans to work rebuilding our nation's infrastructure to the world's top level.

Let's also tap into our country's deep well of grassroots ingenuity, can-do spirit, and commitment to the common good in order to update and extend our infrastructure into the new age. If we build a national network of renewable energy systems, for example, we will achieve energy independence for ourselves and future generations. And if we are truly to be a world leader, we must quickly build a public, information-age infrastructure that provides highspeed broadband connections and computers for every American in our land.

Not only can we do all of this, we must. To start, we have to spread the word about the disastrous decline our leaders have wrought and put what I call "pothole politics" up front on our local, state, and national agendas. Potholes don't get fixed until people scream.

From " The Hightower Lowdown ," edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, November 2006. Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of "Thieves In High Places: They've Stolen Our Country And It's Time to Take It Back."