It’s Time To Ask “Why The Hell Not?” On Infrastructure Spending

It’s time and past time to put DC politicians on the spot about badly-needed federal infrastructure spending. Obama’s not exactly eager to be forthcoming with the cash, and Republicans actually want to cut infrastructure by hundreds of billions. They need to explain what the fuck is going on in their dumb little vote-and-campaign-cash grubbing heads, before the nation falls apart at the seams.

Hurricane Sandy cost New York and New Jersey $71 billion, Hurricane Irene caused nearly sixteen billion dollars in damage, Katrina cost $100 billion and the cost of natural disasters to the US economy has more than doubled in the past 20 years. How many times must such massive financial losses be allowed to happen before the flood barriers, levees, underground power cables and other infrastructure that’s needed to prevent them once and for all is put in place? The return on the investment is clear.

the U.S., as a rule, tends to underinvest in public infrastructure. We’ve been skimping on maintenance of roads and bridges for decades. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our infrastructure a D grade, and estimated that we’d need $2.2 trillion to bring it up to snuff. Our power grid is, by the standards of the developed world, shockingly unreliable. A study by three Carnegie Mellon professors in 2006 found that average annual power outages in the U.S. last four times as long as those in France and seven times as long as those in the Netherlands. (The past two years’ data would likely be even worse.) This isn’t because of a lack of resources—the U.S. is the world’s biggest economy. But, though we may have the coolest twenty-first-century technology in our homes, we’re stuck with mid-twentieth-century roads and wires.

Meaningful disaster-prevention measures will certainly be expensive: estimates for a New York seawall range from ten to twenty billion dollars. That may seem unreasonable at a time when Washington is obsessed with cutting the federal deficit. Yet inaction can be even more expensive—after Katrina, the government had to spend more than a hundred billion dollars on relief and reconstruction—and there are good reasons to believe that disaster-control measures could save money in the long run. The A.S.C.E. estimates that federal spending on levees pays for itself six times over, and studies of other flood-control measures in the developed world find benefit-to-cost ratios of three or four to one. The value for money is even higher in poor countries, where floods obliterate weak infrastructures. And a 2005 independent study of disaster-mitigation grants made by FEMA found that every dollar in grants ended up saving taxpayers $3.65 in avoided costs.

The size of our current deficit does not change this calculus. In fact, there’s never been a better time for a Delta Plan in the U.S. With interest rates so low, it’s cheap to borrow money, and there are plenty of unemployed workers and unused resources that can be put to work.

Even federal spending on highways has a return of $2 for every dollar spent. Is this simple to understand even inside the Beltway, or what?

 Recently a bridge in New Jersey collapsed under a train carrying carcinogenic chemicals, causing 28 people to be hospitalized with breathing problems. It’s the second time the bridge has collapsed in four years. We should all be glad the train wasn’t carrying chlorine or some other cargo that would have meant a significant immediate death toll.

The problem is widespread and chronic, according to expert studies.

there are thousands of similar “time bomb” bridges around the country ready to collapse at any moment. The average American bridge is now 43 years old — and a 2008 Department of Transportation survey determined that 72,868 are “structurally deficient,” while 89,024 are “functionally obsolete.”

 The American Society of Civil Engineers has also reported that the US is already losing over $50 billion a year due to defficiencies in air and water infrastructure, and that at current investment levels, losses will accumulate every year to a total loss of nearly $4 trillion to the national GDP and $7.9 trillion in lost business through 2040. Over the same period, over 1.7 million fewer jobs will be created because of those losses in trade and income.

And so it’s time to put Congress and the White House on the spot. They need to explain why they are denialists about expert studies that say America’s infrastructure is old, obsolete and broken. They need to explain why they are denying expert studies that say infrastructure spending makes at least a $2 for $1 return. If they won’t spend the money needed to fix the nation’s lagging infrastructure, halt the financial costs caused by that lag, and realize the profits for the nation that would be made, then they need to be forced to explain why the hell not.  Do they hate America?

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • When did local infrastructure become a federal responsibility? Why should the people of, say, Idaho pay to protect New Orleans from hurricanes? Why should the people of Kansas City pay to carry Minneapolis traffic across the Mississippi River? Cities, or at least states, have built their own infrastructure for more than a century.

    • Why should the people of, say, Idaho pay to protect New Orleans from hurricanes?

      Really? The little matters of common humanity and living in the same country don’t impact your thinking, just localized “I’m alright, Jack” greed?

      Obvious troll is being too obvious.

      I assume if your house catches fire you’ll be putting the blaze out yourself, right? After all, why should the folk on the other side of town, or even the other side of the street, have to pay for your misfortune? That’s the reductio ad absurdum of your position.

  • I regard the need for upgrading and maintaining public water and sewer systems more important than a lot of the “important to the economy” roads and bridges infrastructure. I’m hesitant about a lot of the roads, bridges, and flood control infrastructures because it seems that they too often exacerbate the problems. We try to eliminate anything natural that stands in the way of site-specific “improvement”. So we build levees to shoot the Mississippi straight out of the Delta into the Gulf, along with topsoil. Then we have to use heavy fertilization for farming where it was once unnecessary. Roads and highways rarely have adequately sized culverts, so they are a major flood cause in a heavy storm. Can we think about reducing the need for roads and bridges? And don’t even get me started on building on the beaches!

    I support public spending on infrastructure, but in a context where we’re recognizing and protecting the overall value of the economy, not pretending that every single piece of property is the same.

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