Public Works Work

By Ralph Nader

The United States of America is the richest country in the history of the world. So why is its foundation literally crumbling away? Our roads, schools, bridges, public transit, public water and sewage systems and national parks are in serious need of repair and modernization. Every year this deterioration worsens, it brings us closer to potentially catastrophic events that could harm our population and our economy. As a comparison, current U.S. military spending exceeds the military budgets of the next twenty countries combined.

If government were a business and that business took in healthy annual revenues, but failed to repair and modernize its factories and facilities over time, it would not make for a promising and profitable future… and you can be sure investors would notice. This is the plight that the United States now faces — we have allowed the infrastructure and public works of our country to breakdown. It’s time to refocus our spending from the philosophy of Dr. Strangelove to that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What would FDR say — after putting hundreds of thousands of Americans to work building miles of highway and thousands of bridges under The New Deal — about the critical state of disrepair our public works have been allowed to fall into, all while unemployment rates are so high?

Consider these three areas of vital infrastructure in need of serious attention:

Bridges. In August 2007, the I-35 Bridge in Minneapolis, MN collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others. The Federal Highway Administration had labeled it “structurally deficient” which they define as being in need of significant maintenance and repair in order to remain open for use. Over 70,000 bridges in the United States are currently labeled with this same warning. In addition, 90,000 other bridges have been declared “functionally obsolete”, meaning they weren’t built to operate to modern standards. The American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) estimates that repairing and modernizing America’s bridges will require about $17 billion a year — a total of $850 billion over the next 50 years. Bridges are essential to our economy, yet so many people take their function for granted as they drive to and from their destinations, not considering the resources and maintenance needed to sustain these crucial structures.

Mass Transit. Americans have places to go, but not enough options when it comes to getting there. Bus service, subways and heavy rail are in immediate need of improvement. The American Society of Engineers reported that, while use of mass transit in the U.S. is going up, half of American households do not have access to mass transit, and of those that do, only 25 percent have what they consider “a good option”. In metropolitan areas, bus service needs to be frequent, well-maintained and reliable. Poor residents of cities are often forced to travel for hours to reach suburban areas where jobs or social services are located. And by making bus travel a more viable option, it will reduce the severe gridlock caused by automobile commuters. The same goes for subways and other light rail systems.

Furthermore, America is far behind other developed nations when it comes to high speed rail — currently only one high-speed rail line exists, the Amtrak Acela, which runs from Boston to Washington D.C. Expanding this system would make travel between cities easier and lower the cost paid in pollution and global warming.

Investing in modern mass transit will create cities with reduced sprawl, healthier air and less congestion, and thus increase the quality of life for residents.

The Water Supply. It’s common knowledge that if you travel to a poor, developing country, you shouldn’t drink the tap water, at least not without boiling it to kill any microbiological contaminants. In recent years, warning signs of tainted water have cropped up in such cities as Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, New York City and others. Political ideologies of all stripes should agree that clean, safe drinking water should be a priority in a country as highly developed as the United States. In 2009, the New York Times reported that “more than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems [had] violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act” since 2004. The water supplies in various communities were found, for example, to contain concentrations of arsenic, bacteria from sewage and radioactive substances such as uranium. Contaminated water made its way to 49 million people. Fines were levied in less than 6 percent of the cases.

According to the Times, as many as 19 million Americans become ill each year because of unsafe drinking water. The 2007 EPA Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment estimated that $334.8 billion is needed over the next twenty years to install, upgrade or replace community water systems — $52 billion of which was needed immediately to meet existing requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, which I worked hard to get Congress to enact. Clean, safe drinking water is such a basic necessity that it should be the highest priority of our leaders to ensure its quality. The fact that even our water works have been allowed to deteriorate should be a call to the citizenry to arouse and make its demands to the decision-makers plain and clear.

While the cost of implementing such capital investment projects is considerable, the cost of not acting on them — now, before they grow worse — would be much higher. It is long overdue for the federal government to enact a comprehensive public works agenda that creates good paying jobs in every community which cannot be exported.