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

The aviation industry likewise struggles to cope with ever more passengers and cargo, larger planes, and growing traffic volume. "Congress estimates that airports require $14 billion in annual capital infusions," the report says, "to keep pace with needed improvements and expansions."

And while flying may be an ordeal, more worrisome are the utility systems supplying water, treating waste and providing electric power.

Throughout the country, aging water and sewer pipes must be replaced because of deterioration, insufficient size or lead content. Rapid population growth could overburden sewage treatment plants that would more frequently discharge untreated effluent into waterways, posing serious health and environmental risks.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that, over the next 20 years, $300 billion to $500 billion will be needed to maintain and improve America's wastewater infrastructure, according to the report.

What about electricity? Without substantial investment in new generating capacity and alternative energy sources, power plants and transmission grids would be unable to supply enough power to meet surging demand. Much higher electric bills and mandatory conservation would be unavoidable, as would service interruptions and blackouts.

To achieve infrastructure quality, all levels of government must reconsider policies and priorities while collaborating with the private sector. Planning must be long-range and more regionally integrated. Effective resource and energy conservation strategies must be adopted.

Yet no matter how proficient government might become, fixing and expanding America's infrastructure will require trillions of dollars. As the report points out, there are numerous strategies for generating revenues, reducing costs or shifting infrastructure responsibilities: privatization, public/private partnerships, congestion pricing, tolls and user fees, consumption charges, impact fees, and targeted taxation.

But no matter which strategies are employed, American taxpayers ultimately will foot the bill. Perhaps this is why infrastructure is not a hot presidential campaign issue or even a topic of conversation. With the next big crisis, it will be.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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