The Infrastructure Canary Is Dead: There Are Flints of All Kinds to Come
Hey! Remember that depressing post I wrote last week about pedestrian fatalities? Well I'm back with more lighthearted fun about American infrastructure! Over at the New York Times–which I'm told is an organization where they put their blog posts on large pieces of paper that people purchase (why???)–Nicholas Kristof describes how the terrible situation in Flint, MI is the tip of the iceberg with respect to lead poisoning in the United States. It's a good article with plenty of interesting information on how Congress has defunded anti-lead programs, how there are 24 million homes with lead paint across the country, and how lead poisoning affects people–children in particular.
His argument is fairly simple. We stopped fighting the lead problem, and now it's likely to get worse unless we put some real money towards it, starting at minimum with restoring the funding that was previously cut. This sounds like an easy enough solution, and given the disaster in Flint there might be some opportunity for action in Congress because it presents opportunities for politicians to claim victories. I can imagine a scenario where there's even a bipartisan bill that restores some of the funding that enables testing and remediation with a senator or two soberly claiming that "this is not a political issue but a moral one" or some such. It would be good if something like that happened, even if it is a transparent attempt at scoring points.
But what about everything else? And by everything else, I mean, without exaggeration, nearly all of our public infrastructure across the country. Roads and bridges. Water treatment and pipes. Gas lines. Our near-failing electrical grid. All of it is decaying, and though there's lots of talk about dealing with it, there's very little practical action on the issue. Fixing the lead problem sounds good and all, but it's little more than infrastructure whack-a-mole given how much other stuff is deteriorating at an incredible pace.
More Infrastructure Crises Where This Came From
It's easy to look at situations like Flint and think that what's happening is a problem that only affects places with depressed economies, whether through the willful neglect of elected officials with little to gain from the populace or simply because such locales don't have the wealth to maintain their roads and sewers. After all, it's pretty self-evident that a place like Flint is going to struggle to keep up even if political figures were making every effort to do right by them.
But what about everywhere else? How much of this is going to effect places that at least theoretically have the economic base to support themselves? We hear a lot about America's infrastructure problems, but I think part of the reason we keep kicking the can down the road is simply seeing them as problems that happen somewhere else. This is dangerous thinking.
Many people are familiar with the phrase "a canary in the coal mine" as a way to describe when some occurrence is a warning sign of a larger problem. The idea is that if the air inside of a coal mine became toxic, a canary would drop dead from its effects early enough that the miners would be able to flee. Tragedies like the one in Flint are not aberrations. Bridge collapses will continue to happen. Massive power outages are not just fluke occurrences. These are indicators that our failing infrastructure is catching up with us faster than we're dealing with it. We've got a lot more of this on the horizon.
There Isn't Enough Money and There Never Will Be
Here's where many articles and blog posts make impassioned pleas for massive new funding to fix all this stuff. We need to raise the gas tax. We need to cut red tape. We need new user fees and taxes. There is no shortage of articles with variations on that theme.
All of that stuff is almost certainly part of some solution, but there's a key assumption in most articles that I think is utterly wrong. Most arguments about infrastructure presume that all of it is worth fixing. It may not be stated outright, but there's an implication that every road, bridge, and sewer line is needed. It's not true. We're overbuilt and we simply are not going to maintain all of it. Part of the reason we have such a gap between how much it costs to maintain stuff and how much we're actually putting into these systems is because we built a lot of stuff with no real thought to how we'd repair and replace it. The funding is there for the initial build-out because that's the exciting part. We cut ribbons on new bridges, but we don't hold press conferences to announce the thrilling work to replace the sewer line on Poplar Avenue.
We don't have the money now because we never really had it to begin with.
Moreover, there is no appetite for the raising the additional tax and fee money it would take to both play catch up and keep everything we've built in adequate condition going forward. If there was, wouldn't we have done it already? The funding shortfall gets worse every day, making it impossible for me to imagine a broad-based agreement on fixing it. This is despite high quality infrastructure being something that politicians of all stripes at least broadly agree upon, even as they disagree on how to go about dealing with it. We see little progress because, deep down, we know we're going to have to make difficult, painful decisions about what to keep and what to let fall into disrepair. To suggest that we can't have it all borders on being un-American, but it's our reality.
Last week I suggested that we collectively accept pedestrian fatalities as a tolerable if distasteful consequence of enabling high-speed automobile travel and that we ought to just be honest about that. It was fatalistic because that's how I was feeling at the time. This week, despite the grim prognosis I'm giving for America's infrastructure, my plea for honesty comes from a more optimistic place. We are not going to fix and replace every failing road or bridge or sewer. But if we can admit that–if we can be honest–then maybe we can move forward with making the tough decisions.
If you don't like my spiel, read Nate Hood's instead. Came across it just after finishing this, and it's a good look at this from a more tactical point of view.
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