What will it take for America to fix its decrepit infrastructure?
In an election season that already promises to involve such meat and potato issues as illegal immigration, anchor babies and miscellaneous terrorism scares, nowhere in the menu of discussion and consideration will be the condition of US infrastructure. The name alone is notoriously soporific and virtually never pronounced correctly. (“Infastructure” has replaced Bush 43’s “nucular” as the latest hit in popular cacoepy.)
Infrastructure describes the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in its 2013 Report Card calculated that $3.6 trillion should be spent on infrastructure and gave its cumulative GPA for infrastructure a whopping D+. It further reported that $1.7 trillion must be invested through 2020 to “rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the ends of their planned life cycles.” The University of Virginia’s Miller Center estimated that an additional $134 billion to $262 billion must be spent per year through 2035 to rebuild and improve roads, rail systems and air transportation.
It seems a logical given that any great society must invest in reindustrialization for nothing more than purely existential reasons. The necessity of self-preservation. At the same time, the process of building infrastructure has derivative benefits including the creation of jobs, restoring economies and reinvigorating science, technology and research platforms. Not too shabby a side effect. And once upon a time this country utilized a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) model that serves as the template and standard for ambitious public works programming and infrastructure development. But, unfortunately, political patellar responses often inspire the immediate charge that it is a dreaded liberal program (whatever that means) and therefore by definition wasteful, thus channeling for some the specter of FDR. Of the announced presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders has been most vocal as to the need to address infrastructure issues without, however, a clear plan on how to fund necessary programs.
You will also hear as a counterbalance the refrain that references Ronald Reagan’s famous position announced in his 1981 inaugural that’s tattooed on the collective memory of legions: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Now, while everyone has a working knowledge of infrastructure, let me give you this one shining example of a profound and prolific problem. It is imperative that we address the rebuilding of the American rail system, specifically, its modernization by installing state-of-the art Maglev (magnetic levitation) rail systems enabling connectivity in each state. The Harvard Business Review notes that Japan recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its famed bullet train network, the Shinkansen.
It notes that trains routinely operate at speeds of 150 to 200 miles per hour, and in 2012, they report that the average deviation from schedule was a mere 36 seconds. Fifty years later, we have nothing remotely similar. Well, save for Amtrak’s “high-speed” Acela between Washington, DC and Boston. After all, it’s not called “Acela” for nothing, right? Those trains can throttle up to “full speed of 150 mph only for a short stretch in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, because it is plagued by curves in tracks laid over a century ago and aging components, such as some electric overhead wiring dating to the early 1900s.” Ouch.
Now, whenever the subject of improving rail systems and service is broached I will guarantee you that more often than not you will hear either total indifference or a robust and often animated objection that involves 1) Amtrak and train travel are antediluvian and inconsistent with modern transportation, 2) Amtrak is a heavily-subsidized white elephant that was a failure ab initio and should be scrapped altogether, or combinations thereof. And let me hasten to mention that the usual objections are made from those who’ve never experienced foreign or modern rail travel. (But why let a lack of a factual frame of reference get in the way of a resounding and full-throated reaction?)
The New York Times in its editorial, “Making the Case for High-Speed Rail,” addressed a number of considerations and factors — including the need and reality of (Eek!) federal subsidization — that must be addressed and, frankly, embraced to enable the United States to join the ranks of countries like France and Japan in successfully integrating high-speed rail systems into its transportation networks.
But, sadly, that chord fails to reverberate in a tone-deaf society that has minimal appreciation for the benefits of modern rail systems or the benefits of integrated and coordinated transportation networks. And it’s not just rail systems, it could be space exploration, revamping the electrical grid, building hospitals, name it. But were the subject to involve war or weapons systems, there wouldn’t be so much as a question as to its necessity. Money would be no object. ISIS trumps Amtrak every time.
And therein lays the gravamen of my indictment against the collective (unwarranted and unjustified) insouciance that discussions of infrastructure inspire. Phrased somewhat differently, they simply don’t get it. Or care to.
Lionel, for RT.
Lionel is an Emmy Award-winning lawyer, legal analyst and news decoder.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.