Our aging infrastructure is a concern
I have been thinking about a column on this subject for some time, but the collapse of the interstate bridge in Minneapolis two weeks ago has highlighted its urgency.The focus right now is on our interstate highway system, which was authorized by Congress in 1956. Parts of that system are close to half a century old, and are beginning to show the ravages of time and the effects of tremendous increases in heavy truck traffic. Bridges are threatened by corrosion and stress fatigue, and pavements are suffering from intense truck traffic and base failure.
But the problems are not limited to the interstate system. Most of our highways are considerably older than the interstates. The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that 27 percent of our highway bridges (160,000 bridges) will need major repairs or replacement within the next few decades.Unlike highways, even more serious infrastructure problems are hidden from view. Water mains and sewer systems in many of our cities are over 100 years old, and gas supply lines and underground electrical cables go back 50 to 75 years. These utilities will not last forever (like the steam line in downtown Manhattan that recently ruptured explosively). They will increasingly need repairs and will ultimately require replacement. You can patch things up for only so long. Severely complicating the repair and replacement of these underground utilities, and sending the cost into the stratosphere, is the fact that in our metropolitan areas, many of them are located under the pavement of heavily-traveled streets and highways.So who do we expect will pay the enormous cost of replacing our aging infrastructure? Past generations footed the bill to create the present infrastructure of which we are the beneficiaries. By ignoring the problem and failing to allocate money for maintaining and replacing this infrastructure, we are again passing the burden on to the next generations, just as we are doing by running up our national debt because we have been unwilling to face up to the cost of the entitlement programs we have put in place for ourselves and the cost of an open-ended war in Iraq.
Two questions must be answered. Do we have the financial resources to maintain the infrastructure which is essential to sustaining our country’s future, and do we have the will to commit those resource to the task? Our economy, our security, our standard of living – indeed our entire society – are all dependent on a functioning infrastructure. If our infrastructure collapses, so does our country. We have only to look at parts of Africa, where the infrastructure built by the colonial powers has fallen into disrepair, to see the results of neglect.Our deteriorating infrastructure is an even greater and more certain threat to our future than is terrorism. Yet we have been ignoring it. For example, the $1.6 trillion dollars that it is estimated the war in Iraq will ultimately cost us would have been sufficient to repair or replace all of the deficient highway bridges in the country.
What we have to decide is what kind of a legacy we want to leave to our children and grandchildren. Everyone claims they want to do the best they can for their children’s future. Isn’t cutting back on our lifestyle to pay for the cost of needed infrastructure improvements a commitment we should make to them?Hal Sundin’s column appears every other Thursday in the Post Independent.
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