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Politicians need to tackle infrastructure problem

Michael Smerconish

By Michael Smerconish

Published March 24, 2015

 Politicians need to tackle infrastructure problem
My birthday celebration last weekend was the most expensive of my 53 years, but not because of celebratory extravagance. My car was eaten by the Godzilla of American potholes, and regardless of what I'm personally reimbursed, that impact will have a several-thousand-dollar reverberation on the economy. For me, this is no one-off. It's the third time in five years that I have suffered blowouts on pothole-strewn roads, and I'm not that much of an outlier. AAA Mid-Atlantic calculates that nearly 50 percent of American motorists have experienced damage to their vehicles as a result of potholes in the last five years.

Our family had just finished brunch in Brooklyn before heading home with me at the wheel. Trouble came just minutes after I exited the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Traffic on both sides of me prevented my swerving to avoid what's best described as a crater. The result was one of those impacts that you feel in your bones.

I quickly maneuvered off I-278 via Exit 13A, where I took position on the side of a busy road. I soon learned that our plight was not unique. The area's tow trucks were all overwhelmed. Despite my best imitation of Jack Lemmon in the "Out of Towners ("You'll hear from me if I don't hear from you"), more than five hours passed before we were rescued. Two days later, on Monday at 6 p.m., I received an email from the service manager of the garage where the car had been flat-bedded:

"I'm sorry. I have gotten over 24 tow-ins today, 14 of them all needed tires. On top of the 85 appointments we had today for service/repairs/more tires. We do our best to get to every tow in the day they arrive. Unfortunately with the road conditions in the tri-state area the cars coming in for blow-outs are here by the dozens."

While on the side of the road I passed some of the time Googling "infrastructure." I learned that once every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives letter grades to our nation's infrastructure in 16 categories. In 2013, the overall assessment warranted a D-plus, and in the category of roads, we received a D (poor). The executive summary on roads noted: "Currently, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion in capital investment would be needed on an annual basis to significantly improve conditions and performance."

The remainder of the report card had grades that would make any parent wince: Airports: D; Bridges: C-plus; Dams: D; Drinking Water: D; Energy: D-plus; Hazardous Waste: D; Inland Waterways: D-minus; Levees: D-minus; Ports: C, Public Parks and Recreation: C-minus; Rail: C-plus; Schools: D; Solid Waste: B-minus; Transit: D; Wastewater: D.

"Civil engineers work on civil infrastructure," ASCE past president Andy Herrmann told me. "That's what we do. That's what we see every day and we're seeing it deteriorate. The lack of investment is starting to hurt us and we're seeing the lack of maintenance, which just accelerates the deterioration of our infrastructure."

According to Herrmann, 32 percent of America's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition and that costs each U.S. motorist $324 on average. The average for Pennsylvania is $424 per motorist, and in New York that number jumps to $505. (AAA Mid-Atlantic told me that the annual cost to motorists of potholes alone is $6.4 billion, which might be exceeded this year due to weather.)

Herrmann faults elected officials for not addressing the infrastructure issues.

"I think the political leadership is afraid to present it to us," he said. "They are so looking at no new taxes, no new taxes, they're not looking at just basic maintenance. The gas tax hasn't really been raised, the federal one, since 1993. So we're living on 1993 dollars in 2015 to maintain our roads and bridges."

Ed Rendell might be the exception. In the late 1990s, he replaced Houston Mayor Bob Lanier as the chair of an organization called Rebuild America, an interest that continued while he was governor and included his founding Building America's Future, with Michael Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the co-chairs.

"Infrastructure is important first and foremost to our public safety," he told me. "We see what happens when bridges collapse or pipelines burst. It's important to our quality of life. It's important to our economic competitiveness. The ability to move goods swiftly is crucial, particularly in the global economy. And, lastly, it's the best producer of quality middle-class jobs that pay $60,000, $70,000, and $80,000 a year, and you don't have to have a college degree for it."

I asked him what would happen to 2016 congressional, senatorial, or presidential candidates who premise their campaign on addressing the infrastructure?

"I think that candidate, if they explain it well and talk about the cost of doing nothing compared to the little cost of raising a tax to help pay for infrastructure, does very well," Rendell said. "You know, people think that you raise taxes and that's immediate death. My first year as governor ... I inherited a $2.4 billion deficit from the outgoing administration. I wanted to put half a billion dollars into early childhood education.

"I raised $2.7 billion in taxes — the second biggest in Pennsylvania history — and everyone said I was dead politically. Three years later, I got elected by a margin of 21 percent, more than Chris Christie got re-elected. Of course, nobody talks about me running for president. ... Nonetheless, raising taxes isn't death if you use the money and give people something concrete that they can see and understand as benefiting their lives."

I'm ready to test Rendell's hypothesis. Now all we need are candidates to champion the cause.

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Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of "Smerconish" on CNN.

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