Jewish World Review August 3, 2001 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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America's benign neglect -- A MASSIVE fire in a Baltimore train tunnel virtually shuts down a city. Manhole covers over faulty wiring explode all over Georgetown here in the Capital City. Rolling electricity blackouts plague California. Welcome to Summer 2001, in the world's richest country.

These and other natural or manmade disasters are reminders that, for all the material wealth and natural resources of the United States, we have not yet arrived at Utopia. In fact, the nation is experiencing a physical breakdown, especially in the big cities, for a simple reason - neglect.

What now goes under the name of infrastructure - the roads, railways, airports, bridges, tunnels, underground cables, pipelines, water supplies, waste disposal and mass transit systems - is straining under the pressures of age, population growth, congestion and gridlock. When disruption of any sort occurs, it's as much an inevitability, the experts say, as it is an accident.

In this steamy season of partisan wrangling here between Republicans and Democrats, both parties lament the infrastructure breakdown but offer Band-Aids in terms of what's needed in repair.

The American Society of Civil Engineers earlier this year made a sweeping survey of the nation's physical plant and gave it a report card. The overall grade for 12 segments of the infrastructure rated was a D-plus. It blamed the condition on inadequate investment and maintenance to keep pace with "explosive population growth and school enrollment," "local political opposition and red tape which stymie the development of effective solutions," and "the growing obsolescence of an aging system."

An 11-member advisory council estimated that the country required an infrastructure investment of $1.3 trillion over five years - roughly the same amount as the tax cut over nine years that President Bush navigated past Congress this spring.

It's not that Congress has blindly ignored the problem. Under a new Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century enacted in 1998, known as T-21, $218 billion was provided to repair and improve the nation's highway and other transit systems through 2003. But the Federal Highway Administration has estimated the country needs to invest $94 billion a year for roads and bridges over the next 20 years, not counting maintenance costs.

A companion Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (A-21) authorized spending of $40 billion through 2003, but the system is overburdened, with about 700 million passengers now flying a year, estimated to reach a billion within 10 years. In the 27 hub airports that handle 70 percent of all commercial traffic, only four new runways have been added since 1995.

The ASCE report card found that a third of the nation's major roads are in "poor or mediocre condition," contributing to as many as 13,800 highway fatalities a year. As of 1998, 29 percent of all bridges were ruled "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete." The nation's airports, which got a grade of D, had congestion delaying nearly 50,000 flights in one month alone, with 429 near misses reported last year, up 25 percent from 1999.

The infrastructure segment receiving the lowest grade on the report card - a D-minus - was schools. Aging or outdated facilities and severe overcrowding made 75 percent of all school buildings in the country "inadequate to meet the needs of school children." At that, however, the grade for schools crept up from a flat F of three years ago.

Committees in the Senate and House dealing with the infrastructure are considering legislation to extend the highway and airport aid when the current acts expire two years from now. But according to a Federal Highway Administration report based on the status of roads, bridges and transit systems in 1999, $56.6 billion will be needed annually over 20 years just to maintain their current physical condition at a lower operational level. To bring them up to desired standard, the report says, would cost $94 billion a year.

It's a dismal outlook, and one that is not likely to be brighter in a nation whose leaders short-change infrastructure deterioration as they hand out tax rebates to taxpayers who tell pollsters they'd rather see the money spent on schools and saving Social Security.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

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