Don't Forget to Brush
If my mouth were a stop on the D.C. subway system, service would be suspended indefinitely. A chipped tooth recently sent me to the dentist for the first time in years, and now I'm paying the price for my deadbeat policy of deferred maintenance with six fillings and a root canal, dispensed over multiple appointments. What really rankles—more than the cost of treatment, the disruption of my schedule, and the ache in my gums—is the fact that I could have avoided the mess altogether by simply setting aside a couple of hours every six months for a checkup.
Something similar could be said of our nation's infrastructure. The overall forecasts and surveys are grim, despite the careful maintenance of icons like the Golden Gate Bridge (this issue, "A Serviceable Icon"). In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) graded the condition of U.S. infrastructure, giving it a D. Would Minneapolis' I-35W bridge have collapsed or New Orleans' levees broken had Congress, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the Army Corps of Engineers, and countless other responsible authorities at every level of government had the resources and foresight to execute the right maintenance at the right time?
Resources are indeed a major issue. The ASCE estimates it would cost $1.6 trillion—no small drop in the bucket—to bring the nation's infrastructure up to speed over the next five years. The DOT offers ostensibly less biased and more conservative estimates for select infrastructural upgrades over a 20-year period, but the figures are still staggering: $78.8 billion for roads and $24 billion for transit. Everybody, it seems, thinks the nation should increase our investment in infrastructure—well, almost everybody.
The chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, James Oberstar, recently called for a five-cent increase in the federal gas tax, which pays for the national highway system. The tax hasn't been increased since 1993, but President George W. Bush has rejected the proposal, instead calling for greater cost-effectiveness and increased accountability—presumably for pork like the $8 billion in 2008 transportation earmarks that USA Today reports “for pet projects that include a North Dakota peace garden, a Montana baseball stadium and a Las Vegas history museum.”
Both Bush and Oberstar are acting within reason, except that their actions amount to a stalemate. Maybe both of them should get their way. Why not make a significantly larger investment in the nation's infrastructure, as Oberstar proposes, and reform the process of administration at the same time, as Bush seems to advocate? The trickle-down of dollars from the federal government to states and municipalities is uneven at best, with Alaska getting $6.60 for every dollar paid in federal gas taxes, while California, home of the freeway, gets 91 cents on the dollar.
While we're busy reinventing the wheel, so to speak, here's another goal: shifting the emphasis of U.S. infrastructure spending. Keep the roads, bridges, and airports in safe, working order, to be sure. But hasn't the time come to restore the viability of light and heavy rail? Amtrak's been on a starvation diet for decades. Brushing up the nation's rail infrastructure would help decrease our reliance on foreign oil, lessen our outrageously high output of greenhouse gases, and, just possibly, even prevent gingivitis.