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Commentary: Implications of a decaying infrastructure

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2011 - If your job is unrelated and your car axle avoids potholes, infrastructure is boring. Wall Street occupiers don't pontificate about sewer reconstruction. Tea party acolytes are agnostic regarding bridge safety regulations. Politicians somnambulate through "rebuild the infrastructure" rituals as they segue to sexier orations.

But boring or not, infrastructure matters! It matters if we are concerned about high-paying jobs or less competitive trade because of antiquated ports. It matters if we aspire to global 21st century leadership. Indeed, since the dawn of our nation and through good times and bad, it has been axiomatic that a modern infrastructure was a foundational economic building block.

Our commitment to infrastructure began in the earliest days of the republic when federal money built beacons, lighthouses and ports for government subsidized shipping fleets. It crystallized in 1808 when Albert Gallatin, President Jefferson's Treasury secretary, proposed a $20 million infrastructure project, an unheard of sum at the time.

The progeny of Gallatin's Plan still resonate. They include, the Cumberland Road, a central cog in early American commerce that connected Maryland and Washington with Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Parts of it are currently known as US Highway 40. The plan led also to the Erie Canal, joining Midwestern industry with the Hudson River and New York harbor, facilitating an economic juggernaut in both places.

This dedication to infrastructure has expanded through the centuries. Despite Civil War, President Lincoln pursued a transcontinental railroad. Teddy Roosevelt established the Inland Waterways Commission because commercial waterways were vital to the nation's future. His depression era namesake pursued vast power dams in the west, bridges and tunnels in New York, and rural electrification and flood control in the south.

In every case, there were jobs for the then and there and the underpinnings of future prosperity. But the last such vision was President Eisenhower's interstate highway system more than 50 years ago. Since that time, imaginations have stagnated and infrastructure has deteriorated.

As a result, we are being humbled by global upstarts with a price that is the antithesis of boring. A 2009 American Society of Civil Engineering report gave the U.S. a summary grade of D on the 15 infrastructure systems it evaluated. It attached a $2.2 trillion five-year cost to raising them to an acceptable level. The impact includes the daily loss of 7 billion gallons of drinking water because of old and leaky pipes. It includes collapsed bridges in Minnesota, breached levies in New Orleans, unemployment because of inadequate public transportation to work, and ubiquitous electrical blackouts due to above ground wires in tree lined neighborhoods.

A second recent report notes that by 2020, inadequate surface transportation infrastructure will, by itself, cost businesses $430 billion in transportation expenses and reduce gross domestic product by $897 billion. That's just one piece of the infrastructure pie.

In the film "Margin Call," a fired and contemplative Wall Street executive reminisces about his former life, a time when he did things that were actually useful. He built a bridge, he muses, as he calculates the millions of miles of driving and the wasted hours he saved; the gas that was never used.

It's a metaphor for our plight. Earlier this year, plans were completed for a commuter train tunnel between New York and New Jersey. All agreed that it would relieve the multiple inadequacies of the creaking depression era system now transporting hundreds of thousands daily. But the project was killed by the New Jersey governor. Too expensive, he bemoaned. Inconsistent with Republican ideals!

Some years back, I attended a scientific conference in Nimes, a small city in southern France. After an all night flight to Paris, the long train trip south seemed foreboding. But I hadn't contemplated French bullet trains. I hadn't imagined whizzing southward at 200 miles per hour, that the first 290 mile nonstop segment to Lyon would take less than two hours, that I would be resting comfortably in my Nimes hotel by early afternoon.

Bullet trains are now ubiquitous throughout Europe, Japan and China. They exemplify the modern air and sea ports, the foreign infrastructure that enhances efficiency and corporate profits when U.S.jobs move overseas, the construction boom and unrestrained confidence that infuse our newest competitors.

That used to be us. It was us for 200 years. But today, we cancel high speed rail and rationalize decaying infrastructure as too expensive to restore. Today, our guiding mantra concerns the things we can't do, as if the 21st century is for others to build, for others to define. If we won't even build a train tunnel, that's precisely what we can expect.

Ken Schechtman is a freelance writer and a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine. 

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