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We've Got to Rebuild America's Crumbling Infrastructure

"The nation's skeleton is as fragile as the candy-cane bones sucked down to threads on Cinco de Mayo."
 
 
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Early this summer most of America saw images of houses washing down the swollen Mississippi, logjammed against a bridge. In the following weeks we heard about the humans, libraries and even pets left homeless, but outside Iowa, few people heard about the problem of those houses, or indeed about that bridge itself. Iowans alone were left to contemplate their opportunities: When insurance failed, would FEMA provide? Would charity? Such questions only rise in importance the moment a reader in San Francisco or New Orleans or Miami pauses to consider who would repair their own city after disaster. For those who pay attention, the problem is wider still. Relics of the early 20th century, America's ancient dams and highways are crumbling with a shocking rapidity. The nation's skeleton is as fragile as the candy-cane bones sucked down to threads on Cinco de Mayo. Who replaces highways and bridges once they're gone?

Most Americans alive today grew up in an era when state infrastructure was on the rise. Some can remember still the monumental Mississippi flood of 1927, which propelled the nation into an unprecedented glut of levee-building. In 1944, the Pick-Sloan Plan gave the Army Corps of Engineers control over 316 reservoirs, dams, navigation projects and flood control zones across the nation. Seventy-year-olds still remember glowing documentaries boasting the efforts' star initiatives: the Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification. In the 1950s and '60s, state engineers spread pylons and arches and overpasses across the nation. They connected and canalized; they filled the landscape with the rumbling sound of commerce on highways, rivers, ports and streets.

That phase of building was associated with a 200-year trend in politics, in which infrastructure became the favorite experiment of expanding nations. By the 18th century, modern democracies had learned that they could extract more resources from their hinterlands if they improved the means of communication, trade and production in the form of infrastructure. State road-building projects transformed Great Britain and France. Prussia used river navigation and marsh drainage. Statecraft carved farms out of marshes and ports from lonely rocks; it threw highways across the nation. Those highways, ports and dams continue to depend upon the action of the state.

The infrastructure state, however, is no more a reality; it has been dramatically eroded by the postwar politics of suspicion. One element was a reaction against centralized states in general, which began as a rejection of contemporary dictatorships, and culminated in theories hostile to any type of centralized management whatsoever. In 1957, political scientist Karl Wittfogel argued that "hydraulic societies" of state-built dams were institutions of "oriental despotism." A second element of the reaction was shortsightedly financial: The cost of FDR's government was provoking hostile reactions and cutbacks across those years; issues of obvious social justice like welfare and housing attracted more popular support and discussion than the relative fortunes of rich and poor riparians. New legislation encouraged communities to adopt flood insurance in lieu of expecting federal subsidies. The 1968 Flood Insurance Act gave the Geological Survey responsibility for estimating the likelihood of every area in the nation to flood, and gave local municipalities the opportunity to purchase flood insurance from the government depending upon their level of risk and perceived need to act. From 1968 forward, HUD, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Flood Insurance Program collaborated to encourage other long-term flood expense-cutting measures like national standards for urban planning that would prevent new developers from building in floodplains. The 1973 Flood Disaster Protection Act scaled back federal assistance, and the 1986 Water Resources Development Act demanded that new projects by the Army Corps of Engineers be supplemented by local finances wherever possible. Further legislation in the '80s and '90s diminished federal assistance for those communities that had not purchased flood insurance. Such policies made relief available for the worst disasters of flood, but effectively whittled away at the state, traditionally the single entity capable of providing funding large enough to build infrastructure on a major scale.

As anti-government politics choked infrastructure spending, they not only halted development but also seriously damaged the nation's skeleton. Eighty percent of the nation's dams are more than 50 years old. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that some 41 of these dams are at risk of causing imminent destruction of life and property. Infrastructure maintenance in the United States as a whole is behind to the degree of $1.6 trillion. America's magnificent cage of infrastructure is like a dying coral reef, poisoned by a facile form of fiscal conservatism.

In an era of minimal federal intervention, these rising costs are visited most harshly upon the poorest communities, whose options dwindle for maintaining their levees, dikes, dams and bridges. As a result, it's the agricultural and rustbelt areas of the country that will witness the consequences of delayed repairs. While New York and California go unheeding, the nation's middle is haunted by the specter of crumbling overpasses in Minnesota and floating houses in Iowa. Such scenes will become more common in the coming years. They mark the result of a transition to a new kind of government, critical of domestic spending in its traditional form; these scenes are the direct heir to the politics of Nixon, Reagan and Bush the First. "Small government" in federal infrastructure meant long-term disintegration: a parents' mortgage on their own children's future.

John McCain and Barack Obama are both mooting answers, in some form, to the crumbling of America's skeleton. McCain's hard stand against all new infrastructure money as "pork" would continue the present policy of restricted intervention. His plans to ease gas prices would work by actually draining local highway funds, and he explicitly opposes the basic rail developments necessary to improve communications on the coasts. In the meantime, disintegrating dams and bridges will become more common, especially in areas such as the Rust Belt and Gulf Coast, where economic lag has already provoked disaster. McCain would cut them off altogether. In contrast, Obama's plan proposes a $60 billion supplement to infrastructure spending, plus additional federal money to stimulate the development of the nation's rail grid. Though still insufficient to revive the nation, this plan does tap the mechanism best suited to meeting the challenge: the state.

This fall's debates will mark a new opportunity, then, for redrawing the map of prosperity in the United States. Whether the map's middle third is marked by ruined overpasses, standing arches and ghost towns or by rejuvenated prosperity is a question that stands now for public debate. Lagging regions, breaking under the cost of their own bridges, will fail for want of statecraft if no vision is offered. Only modern statecraft with its neglected, mighty means can inject the landscape with steel and so revive the nation's lagging regions from their crumbling decay.

Joanna Guldi, Ph.D., is a Commonweal Institute fellow.

 
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