Infrastructure. It’s not exciting, but it sure is important. You don’t think about it much, do you? You just assume that when you drive across a bridge, that bridge is going to support your car, and the other cars that are traveling across it. You assume that when you flip the switch, the lights will come on. If you live near a dam, you assume that dam will remain intact, and not rupture, flooding your property, or maybe even destroying it.
Over the past period of years, since Americans began being routinely told by Republicans that the only thing we have money for is war, war, and more war, the infrastructure of the United States has been in serious decline. While we find billions to send troops around the world to fight in one conflict after another, we can’t come up with even a few million to provide badly needed repairs to highways, bridges, dams, and other critical parts of our infrastructure.
Our parents and grandparents built a world power, with infrastructure that was second to none. Now, our infrastructure is getting worse all the time. In 2013, the World Economic Forum ranked the United States as 14th in the world in infrastructure. According to the Huffington Post, that rank is down seven points from just 2008.
Why have we fallen so far, so fast? Part of the reason, the Huffington Post says, is because states that have been cash strapped since the 2008 recession have been unable to keep up with spending on infrastructure projects, and congress has not picked up the slack. The stimulus bill helped somewhat, but it didn’t provide enough money to take care of everything that needed to be addressed. In 2013, public construction spending as a percentage of GDP was the lowest it had been in at least 20 years, according to a chart created by Joe Wiesenthal.
John Oliver puts infrastructure in the spotlight.
As is becoming the norm in our bizarre, modern day media culture, it takes a comedy show to get people’s attention on the subject. John Oliver took on the topic of infrastructure on the March 1 edition of his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. What he found should be unsettling to all Americans.
For example, there are serious problems with many American dams. Yet, according to Oliver’s report, in 2007, Texas had just seven inspectors, who were responsible for 7,400 dams. Alabama has over 2,000 dams, and doesn’t even have an agency to monitor them.
Former Obama administration Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, once a Republican congressman, says that the government’s statement that the country has over 70,000 bridges that are “structurally deficient” means that those bridges “need to be replaced, or repaired in a very dramatic way.” LaHood continues, “I don’t want to say they’re unsafe, but, they’re dangerous.”
Oliver highlights New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge, part of the New York State Thruway, and the longest bridge in the state. According to Oliver, one official called that bridge a “hold your breath bridge.” Fortunately for New York commuters, the Tappan Zee Bridge will soon be replaced by a new span. But, until that is complete, travelers will continue to have to hold their breath.
Why does Oliver think so little is being done about fixing infrastructure problems? Part of the reason, he says, is because when something new is built, politicians get photo ops, with ribbon cuttings and the like. But when things are repaired, nobody notices. Oliver observes,
You don’t get to cut a ribbon after routine repairs. Infrastructure is like Legos. Building is fun. Destroying is fun. But a Lego maintenance set would be the most boring f—ing toy in the world. ‘It comes built, then you maintain it, and if you do it right, nothing happens, and eventually you die. Have fun, son!’
Most of the problem with money for infrastructure projects, according to Oliver, comes from congress’s refusal to address the federal gas tax. That tax has not been increased since the 1990’s, which means that, due to inflation, the purchasing power of that money has declined substantially. Why hasn’t the gas tax been raised? Part of the reason is that proposal is incredibly unpopular. Oliver plays a clip from a C-SPAN call in show where not a single caller supported raising the gas tax. And really, who can blame working Americans for taking that position, when they see that the rich get away with paying less than their fair share, and here would be yet another tax increase that would hit you harder, the less money you make?
House Speaker John Boehner promised two years ago to look for another funding source for infrastructure. As Oliver points out, so far, nothing has been proposed. Oliver’s multiple attempts to contact the Speaker’s office to ask where things stand have been met with no reply.
It’s a sobering thought. “Is the bridge I’m on one of the 70,000?” you might ask yourself in your daily commute. But, if you’re like most people, you probably give no thought to it. Infrastructure isn’t glamorous, but it is important. When does America respond to our growing need for infrastructure improvements; before, or after more people die?
Here’s the video, from Last Week Tonight on HBO:
Screen capture via Last Week Tonight