As America’s infrastructure crumbles, politicians treat the problem like a partisan board game

May 24, 2021 12:01 am

Traffic moves across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge along the Capital Beltway during rush hour one day before the 4th of July holiday July 3, 2018, between Virginia and Maryland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

No, America, this is not a drill.

In Texas, supposedly the nation’s energy capital, more than 4.5 million homes and businesses were left without light and power for days on end as a freakish winter storm and cold wave caused the state’s insular power grid to fail under the demand.

More than 150 deaths resulted directly or indirectly.

From the Deep South to New England, fuel pumps went dry last week after criminal Russian cyberthieves shut down the Colonial Pipeline’s IT system and extorted a $4.4 million ransom from the company to allow it to use its computers again.

A gaping fracture in a critical steel support beam in the bridge that carries Interstate 40 traffic over the Mississippi River at Memphis not only shut down a primary traffic conduit that spans the nation but backed up hundreds of barges carrying millions of tons of raw materials ranging from grain to fuel along the Mississippi, disrupting countless supply chains in the process. For at least two years, inspectors had failed to detect the fissure that could have collapsed the entire span into the river.

And that’s just in the first five months of 2021 as the nation emerges from a once-a-century pandemic that paralyzed a woefully unprepared nation, killing nearly 600,000.

Worried yet?

Then consider this: The strain on this nation’s brittle critical infrastructure is worsening, even without challenges from hackers and other hostile actors. Climate change for years has normalized increasingly extreme weather and freakish storms. Coastal communities see rising sea levels forever reclaim low-lying areas, posing existential crises to places like New Orleans and Tangier Island, Virginia. An unhardened electrical grid designed for the mid-20th century is one solar storm (or human-made electro-magnetic pulse) away from instantly plunging the United States into indefinite, primitive darkness.

Even the most reticent scientists and researchers tell us it’s not a question of whether but how soon. And how much can we shore up our infrastructure beforehand to mitigate the misery?

So you’d assume, with the evidence as clear and compelling as today’s ceaseless and dispiriting succession of news bulletins, that Washington and our states’ legislatures would be all over this; that an appropriate all-out effort was at least in the pipeline if not fully underway.

And you’d be dead wrong.

Inside the Beltway, this literal life-and-death issue has been reduced — as are all matters serious or trivial — into something of a partisan board game run for profit by cynical officeholders, their well-paid professional political mercenaries and the deep-pocketed K Street influence peddlers.

Reactions have ranged from well-practiced expressions of concern to the galling indifference seen in Sen. Ted Cruz’s latest “What? Me worry?” response to the most costly and widespread disaster in Texas history when he jetted off in February from frozen, blacked-out Houston to balmy Cancún.

America’s failing infrastructure went unaddressed for decades under presidents and Congresses of both parties, despite ever more dire and data-supported warnings about the consequences of inaction.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic finally ebbing after 14 insufferable months, President Joe Biden is pushing a plan with a staggering $2.2 trillion pricetag that would address essentials like roads, bridges, rails, utility and data services, ports and water and sewer systems but also a major expansion of public education and elder-care services.

Aside from the basics of planes, trains and automobiles, it provides hundreds of billions to improve the efficiency of residential and commercial buildings and schools, expand broadband access, update drinking and wastewater systems, harden power grids and cut the nation’s carbon footprint. Nearly half a trillion dollars would be used to reestablish U.S. primacy in research, development and manufacturing.

It would be the most sweeping national investment package since the New Deal and its collection of federally backed alphabet-soup public works projects that put Americans back on the job at the depths of the Great Depression, transforming the country from its mostly agrarian past into an industrialized modern society.

Republicans (who merrily bloated the national debt by $2 trillion with their 2017 tax cuts) are in full pearl-clutching mode over the cost. Competing plans have been offered by the GOP, both a fraction of the price and scope of the Democrats’ lavish wish list.

The $400 billion House GOP plan is limited to roads, rails and bridges. It would, however, be the largest transportation package in U.S. history, dwarfing the last major federal investment: the Eisenhower-era Interstate highway system.

The $568 billion Senate GOP infrastructure plan shares some pared-down goals of the Biden/Democratic plan, including aviation, broadband, water projects, housing, schools and electric vehicles. It draws the line on health care expansions.

Expanding elder care may seem like a stretch for traditional notions of infrastructure. But the pandemic taught us that hospitals and medical care systems are essential to society’s ability to function.

We know how a novel virus pushed both our doctors and nurses as well as our facilities beyond their limitations. Who doesn’t recall how, a few short months ago, corpses were stacked in refrigerator trucks repurposed as morgues in the desperate days before a vaccine liberated us.

Now consider another wave approaching our health care systems more slowly but just as inexorably as the Baby Boom generation shuffles through retirement to dependency and institutional care before joining the Greatest Generation in the cemeteries and history books. It’s an aborning crisis that doesn’t lend itself easily to labels, but it’s real and will be dealt with in a few years one way or another.

If there’s any cause for optimism, it is that negotiations between the White House and congressional Republicans haven’t derailed. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the author of the Senate Plan, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., have both said they’d be open to a plan as large as $800 billion. And the White House, for its part, says it’s willing to segregate traditional infrastructure portions of its proposal, bundle them and send it to Congress, then leave the rest for separate consideration.

Infrastructure isn’t an exclusively federal concern. States, overall, have done marginally better than Washington in addressing some critical needs, perhaps because state officials are closer to the problems, more familiar with their causes and answerable for their consequences.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 report on state infrastructure notes that, for the first time in 20 years, its overall grade point average has climbed to a decidedly underachieving C-minus — an improvement over the previous D-plus. It notes improvement in public drinking water, airports, inland waterways projects and private-sector investment in power grids and freight rail.

The ASCE also optimistically notes that 37 states have increased their fuel taxes to fund road improvements since 2010 and that 98 percent of all local infrastructure improvement ballot initiatives passed last November.

The Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

No sector came close to the dean’s list. The highest marks (Bs) went to rails and ports. Bridges, drinking water, solid waste treatment and energy made middling Cs. Those at the bottom of the class (Ds) included stormwater, schools, roads, dams, levees and wastewater with mass transit bringing up the rear with a D-minus.

In Virginia alone, the report found 356 high-hazard dams, 14 percent of roads rated in “poor” condition that average $517 annually per motorist in repair bills, 4.4 percent of the state’s nearly 14,000 bridges were structurally deficient in 2019, there were $6.5 billion in wastewater treatment and drinking water infrastructure needs totaling $8.1 billion over the next 20 years.

The commonwealth won praise from ASCE for, among other things, the Port of Virginia spending $375 million to elevate power stations in the coastal region several feet off the ground and move data server centers farther inland.

Spending on infrastructure hasn’t always come easily for Virginia’s historically tight-fisted government. That’s gradually changing. Just last month, the state broke ground on the expansion of a critical coastal highway chokepoint: the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, a stretch of Interstate 64 that links Norfolk, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach with Hampton and Newport News on the Peninsula both over and under the water.

How much, how well and how soon the United States addresses its gathering storm over infrastructure is the monster at our doorstep that demands a national response. It’s not cheap, but it’s far less expensive, both in money and human suffering, than doing nothing.

Unfortunately, nothing is what Washington does best.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]