This country is falling apart, and that's no figure of speech. We need an extreme makeover in concrete and steel, and we need it now.
This is a problem I can't blame on George W. Bush, for a change. Well, sure, I can blame him some, but he has to stand in line behind all the other presidents, members of Congress, governors, state legislators and mayors who have let the nation's plumbing rust, its wiring fray, its floor joists warp and its walkways crumble. If this were a house, the neighbors would have called the county inspectors long ago.
At first I thought it was just here, in the nation's capital and environs, where the infrastructure had deteriorated to what sometimes seems like Third World standards. In some cases, make that below Third World standards. In most of the developing countries I've visited, for example, they manage to keep the power on during a garden-variety thunderstorm. But here, in the most powerful city in the world -- a city of humid summers, where thunderstorms are to be expected all season long -- all it takes is a few flashes of lightning, and inevitably at least a few thousand households are left in the dark.
The highways around here are so clogged that there's no longer a predictable rush hour, just random times when the Beltway is at a standstill and other random times when the traffic is merely oppressive. You could take the subway, but whatever station you use, the escalator will probably be broken. Our engineers can design a cruise missile that will turn a 90-degree corner, knock on the target's door and say "Candygram!" to bluff its way inside, but we can't quite master the intricacies of the escalator.
You could just walk, but be advised that occasionally something beneath a heavily trafficked sidewalk will short out and explode, turning innocent manhole covers into Frisbees of Death.
Flying manhole covers aren't something that most Americans have to worry about, fortunately. But the general situation -- nothing seems to work very well anymore; everything seems to be breaking down -- ought to concern us all. The good people of New York, for example, should be inclined to pay attention after a 75-foot retaining wall collapsed a couple of months ago, burying part of a busy highway.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which occasionally issues a report card on the nation's infrastructure, our physical plant is in such need of repair that it rates no more than a D. Since the last full report card, in 2001, there has been modest improvement in the condition of our airports and our school buildings, the group said in March. Everything else has remained the same or gone downhill.
Roads are rapidly deteriorating. Mass transit has to accommodate more riders while making do with less money for maintenance. The power grid is outdated and vulnerable -- not just to local thunderstorms but also to widespread blackouts. More than 27 percent of the 590,750 bridges in the country are "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete," and for bridges in urban areas that figure rises to one in three. The number of "unsafe" dams has risen 33 percent since 1998.
The report estimates that it would take $1.6 trillion over the next five years to repair all of this, and that's not counting post-Sept. 11 security improvements. Now, granted, $1.6 trillion would mean a lot of jobs and contracts for a lot of civil engineers, so it's reasonable to ask whether this is the bare minimum that has to be done. But it's easy to believe the general thesis, and it's also easy to determine who deserves the blame. Yes, our elected officials have been unwilling to raise and spend the money needed to bring the country back up to code. But ultimately they're just doing what we tell them to do.
In my neighborhood, for example, the lights go out during storms because limbs from beautiful but aging trees fall on the power lines and short them out. The problem could be solved by cutting down the offending trees, but that would cause tree-hugger riots -- and also depress property values, which the heavily mortgaged can ill afford. The other definitive solution would be to bury the power lines and all the other overhead wires, but that would mean paying a lot more in utility bills.
Sooner or later, though, we're going to have to pony up. We're a proud nation of homeowners, and there's one thing we all ought to know: If you continue to ignore that drip, drip, drip in the upstairs bedroom, pretty soon you're going to be pricing a new roof.