Ray LaHood went on CBS’s 60 Minutes Sunday night to tell the nation what everyone knows, but no one is willing to do anything about. Seventy thousand bridges in the United States need to be “either replaced or repaired in a very dramatic way.”
But that’s not all. The show’s segment, called “Falling apart: America’s neglected infrastructure,” pointed out that roads are also crumbling, airports and their traffic control systems are outmoded, major seaports don’t have the capacity to accommodate newer, bigger cargo ships, and there are exactly 0 miles of high-speed rail in the U.S.
Former Transportation Secretary LaHood told correspondent Steve Kroft:
You could go to any major city in America and see roads, and bridges, and infrastructure that need to be fixed today. They need to be fixed today.
Spending on infrastructure was last this low in 1947.
But that would take some kind of miracle. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which made our roads and bridges the best in the world for 50 years — though no more — is about to go broke. The Trust Fund depends on the federal gas tax for its revenue. The tax hasn’t been raised since 1993. Public spending on infrastructure is now at its lowest since 1947.
There isn’t disagreement about the state of the country’s infrastructure, which LaHood describes as “on life support.” Business and labor union leaders, plus politicians at every level agree that the infrastructure is in disrepair and money needs to be spent.
However, according to LaHood, Congress doesn’t have the political courage to do what it takes. He said:
They don’t want to spend the money. They don’t want to raise the taxes. They don’t really have a vision of America the way that other Congresses have had a vision of America.
To illustrate the problem, Steve Kroft took a helicopter tour of Pittsburgh with Andy Herrmann, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Pittsburgh has 4,000 bridges, 20% of which are structurally deficient.
Our bridges are way beyond their life expectancy.
One of the most important bridges, connecting the north and the south, was built in 1928 with a life expectancy of 50 years. That was 86 years ago.
Herrman pointed out a second example, an aging arch bridge that was constructed over another highway. Eventually, a structure had to be built beneath it to catch chunks of concrete that fall off. Otherwise, the concrete would fall on the highway below.
Philadelphia had a near-collapse of a major highway bridge, but the catastrophic structural failure was caught by contractors just in time. Other parts of the country have actually experienced some spectacular collapses.
In 2007, the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota killed 13 people and injured 145 others. Last May, a truck hit a truss on the ancient Skagit River Bridge in Washington and took out one of the area’s main corridors of transportation.
At a Senate hearing in early 2014, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, practically begged Senators to raise the gasoline tax. He argued that the failing infrastructure is making it difficult to do business in the United States. Donohue told them:
For once, let’s do what’s right, not what’s politically expedient.
By his side was Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. He argued that for each billion dollars invested in transportation infrastructure, 35,000 jobs would be created. He added:
If business and labor can come before you united on this issue — and we are united on this issue … I think that should tell everybody something and tell it very loudly.
Loud or not, their pleas fell on deaf ears. Nothing changed. Infrastructure wasn’t even an issue during the midterm elections. The chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Bill Shuster (R-PA), and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp (R-MI), refused to be interviewed by 60 Minutes for the “Falling Apart” report.
But Congress has no trouble financing wars.
But the rest of the country should consider this: as of June, 2014, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have cost the country $4.4 trillion. That’s 4.4 thousand billions, which averages out to about $338.5 billion a year since 2001. Most of that vast sum was borrowed, and now the country is paying interest on it.
Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that Congress needs to be spending $450 billion per year to bring the infrastructure to an adequate level by 2020. Furthermore, continuing to underfund it will cost American businesses a trillion dollars in lost sales and will cost the economy 3.5 million jobs.
Obviously, a shift in Congressional priorities to end war and invest in the country is imperative. Such a shift would also improve the economy dramatically. However, the House of Representatives, where money bills originate, has its own top priorities. One is to undermine the Obama administration in every way it can. Another is to feed the profits of the military-industrial complex — which requires wars.
What is Congress’ message to the American public? Sounds like they’re saying two things. Number one, get a horse. Number two, stay off bridges — because you won’t get a damn thing from us!
You can watch the entire 60 Minutes coverage at this link.[Feature photo from 60 Minutes]