An Underlying Problem: What's Below Our Cars and Feet

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, April 26, 2008

A crisis looms. America's infrastructure is in terrible shape, performs badly and is destined to fail more often. Neglect, lack of political will, bureaucratic myopia and woefully inadequate funding are the primary causes.

But is anyone paying attention?

We have heard little about failing infrastructure during the lengthy presidential campaign. This is lamentable but not surprising because infrastructure encompasses systems operating at varied geographic and governmental scales -- federal, state, county and local.

Yet addressing public infrastructure dysfunction is as critical to America's future as addressing health care, education, national security and the economy. Infrastructure problems have huge economic and noneconomic costs. They compromise public safety and degrade the environment. Indeed, America's welfare, prosperity and ability to compete globally will depend in part on the quality of its infrastructure.

We take infrastructure for granted. Only dramatic failures, such as Hurricane Katrina breaching levees and flooding New Orleans or last year's bridge collapse in Minneapolis, momentarily call our attention to it.

"Deterioration, congestion and reduced reliability appear across all sectors," asserts "Infrastructure 2007," an alarming report published last year by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young. On an infrastructure report card prepared three years ago by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the average grade for these sectors -- roads and bridges, transit, rail, aviation, and utilities -- was D. Today it might be approaching D-minus.

Consider transportation infrastructure.

Streets and highways are choked, producing ever more costly travel delays, as well as mounting fuel consumption and carbon emissions. It's easy to see why. From 1990 to 2003, according to the report, miles traveled by car increased 35 percent in the United States while roadway lane miles remained static.

Meanwhile, repairing deteriorating roadways and bridges requires billions of dollars. Vehicular wear and tear from streets full of potholes is yet another expense. All those costs add up.

Transit effectiveness is marginal in most cities, as automobiles remain our primary means of travel. Even cities with extensive bus and rail systems have great difficulty financing needed maintenance, improvements and expansion. Washington's transit system illustrates the fundamental problem: money. With no dedicated funding source, Metro faces chronic operating and capital deficits. The transit authority simply cannot pay for all the equipment and upkeep needed.

Railways move freight all across the nation. Yet rail networks suffer from old and poorly maintained tracks, and congested rail hubs delay service.

High-speed trains could transport millions of people who otherwise would clog highways and airports. Amtrak tries to provide decent passenger service, but marginal funding and severe network constraints make trains a minor component of America's transportation infrastructure. "Mired decades behind Europe and Asia in rail service quality," the report says, "the United States will need to spend at least $250 billion over the next 20 years to catch up."

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