California Forum

America needs an upgrade

A portion of the Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minn., collapsed during the evening rush hour Aug. 1, 2007. Politicians often talk about the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure and create millions of jobs, but lawmakers fear the political blowback from increased fees or higher taxes to rebuild or upgrade America’s decaying highways, bridges, airports and other public structures.
A portion of the Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minn., collapsed during the evening rush hour Aug. 1, 2007. Politicians often talk about the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure and create millions of jobs, but lawmakers fear the political blowback from increased fees or higher taxes to rebuild or upgrade America’s decaying highways, bridges, airports and other public structures. (Minneapolis) Star Tribune file

“I want to use every tool we can to invest in infrastructure and build a stronger, more prosperous future.”

Hillary Clinton, Democratic candidate for president, who supports a five-year, $275 billion infrastructure plan

“We’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people. If we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges … our airports and all of the other problems, we’d have been a lot better off.”

Donald Trump, Republican candidate for president, who advocates a trillion-dollar rebuilding plan

It is easy enough to decry the proliferation of potholes on the nation’s streets. But try to formulate a winning nationwide campaign to spend what is needed to rebuild America’s aging infrastructure? Best of luck to you.

First, consider this: Anyone paying even passing attention to politics in America is aware of the chasm between lofty rhetoric and the harsh, cold reality of what actually gets done.

In the entire political realm, perhaps no arena illustrates this gap between rhetoric and reality more starkly than infrastructure repair and replacement: Politicians regularly opine about the need to rebuild America and produce millions of jobs in the process.

Year in, year out, though, the drill is the same. Billions are sought for replacement and repair of decaying highways, roads, bridges, airports and other public structures – many of them erected more than a half century ago.

In fits and starts, some billions are ponied up, but it’s never enough. Many more billions are needed, and the decay continues. Meanwhile, unless an aging bridge or highway collapses, most people give little or no thought to the matter: Infrastructure seems a tedious topic – the ultimate instance of out of sight, out of mind.

President Barack Obama is one of those lamenting what has not been done, and in November Sacramento voters will be asked whether they are willing to spend more to improve roads and transit systems.

“The fact of the matter is that our failure in 2012, 2013 and 2014 to initiate a massive infrastructure project – it was the perfect time to do it,” Obama told The New York Times in a recent interview about his presidency. “Low interest rates, construction industry is still on its heels, massive need – the fact we failed to do that cost us time. It meant that there were folks we could have helped and put back to work, and entire communities that could have prospered that ended up taking a lot longer to recover.”

In a 2011 memo, Obama underscored why infrastructure rebuilding is so important, saying to maintain the nation’s competitive edge “we must ensure the United States has fast, reliable ways to move people, goods, energy and information.” He also wrote how infrastructure repair would serve as “an engine of job creation and economic growth.”

With politicians on both sides of the aisle hailing the wisdom of infrastructure rebuilding, with both of the presumptive Democrat and Republican candidates for president embracing a massive rebuild, with millions of unemployed Americans available to do the work, and with powerful Washington lobbying groups including the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce emphatically urging a rebuilding of America, why does no solution emerge?

The one-sentence answer is this: Lawmakers fear the political blowback if they were to increase fees enough to do a major rebuild of America’s aging infrastructure, and voters applaud the reconstruction until they hear they actually would have to pay more.

Underlying this stalemate is the fact that there is no political consensus about where the funding should come from or how it should be spent. There also is no dedicated, effective lobbying force, such as those representing doctors, teachers or prison guards, persistently pestering lawmakers in behalf of infrastructure’s plight.

California Department of Transportation Director Malcolm Dougherty says he regularly sees how hard it is to sell infrastructure repairs when he talks with the public and even his own family.

“The general public will tell you they are interested in investing in transportation – everyone wants safe bridges,” Dougherty told me. “No one wants to drive over potholes or sit in traffic. As long as you say you will spend the money on highways, trains and buses, people tend to agree. But when you say ‘we are going to need to raise the gas tax,’ then they go sideways.”

This attitude prevails despite the fact that the federal gasoline tax – which remains constant at 18.4 cents a gallon – hasn’t been increased in more than two decades. In California, a fluctuating state gas tax – based partially on gas prices – has produced less revenue in recent years partly because of declining gas prices and partly because of the manufacture of more fuel-efficient cars.

“The problem is that the word ‘tax’ is extremely unpopular on Capitol Hill,” Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s director of government affairs, told me. “No one wants to talk about raising taxes even for good purposes like rebuilding our infrastructure.

“Since the Republicans took over, Congress has been pretty dysfunctional,” he added. “Across the country, bridges have collapsed. People have died, and that hasn’t worked to prompt a real debate about infrastructure repair, though there are many good reasons to go forward – including saving lives and providing a lot of good, middle-class jobs.”

Michael Kreger, an award-winning professor of civil engineering at the University of Alabama who studies rehabilitation of structural concrete buildings and bridges, had a similar view, telling me in an email: “Perhaps the status quo will not change until deteriorating infrastructure leads to one or more events resulting in significant loss of life.”

Consider the state of affairs in the city of Sacramento, where infrastructure repair and replacement projects lag far, far behind.

John Shirey, Sacramento’s city manager since 2011 and a 40-year veteran in government work, is blunt about why the nation’s rebuild-infrastructure campaign is as weak as it is.

“There has been no political will, no courage, no leadership” directed at forging a long-term source of sufficient funds for the upgrading of the country’s infrastructure, said Shirey, who plans to stay on as long as he is needed after his contract expires in November. About the public’s dislike of new taxes, he told me: “People have to understand there is no free lunch.”

Though Shirey is very proud that the Sacramento City Council twice in the last four years has had the extraordinary gumption to approve increases in water and sewer rates, he says generally the city is far behind in its repair work.

He quickly ticks off specifics: “Even with those recent water and sewer rate increases, Sacramento is on a 280-year replacement cycle for its water mains and a 400-year replacement cycle for its sewers. Systems handling local stormwater drainage are on a 2,800-year cycle. The city’s streets have $150 million in unfunded maintenance for potholes and other problems. There are 4,000 streetlights in Sacramento that must be converted to energy-efficient LED lighting, and there’s still $9 million needed to finish that job. There’s 2,300 miles of sidewalks in the city, and everyone can tell you about a sidewalk in their neighborhood or downtown where it’s cracked or heaved up by tree roots.”

Across the country, there is example after example of infrastructure decay.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, which monitors the infrastructure issue closely, grades the nation’s progress in this arena and reports that for the nation’s highways, drinking water, wastewater, electricity, airport, inland waterways and ports to be improved from a “D” to a “B” grade by the year 2025, $3.3 trillion needs to be spent, according to Greg DiLoreto, chair of the organization’s infrastructure committee. Currently, the revenue available is $1.4 trillion less than that, and DiLoreto says it would cost individual households in America only $3 a day to cover the whole bill.

“Unless we start making this investment,” DiLoreto said, “we will begin to see more of the kind of disasters that befall Flint, Mich.’s water system, or a bridge that collapses in Minneapolis. There are now 240,000 water main breaks a year in this country.”

Dams are problematic as well. More than 2,000 dams in unsatisfactory or poor condition have been classified as high hazard – meaning a loss of life would occur if any of those dams failed, Lori Spragens, executive director of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, told me.

Highways are problematic, too. “There are few things that provide a better return on investment than spending on American infrastructure,” Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, said in a statement. “In addition to the crucial safety consequences on travelers and pedestrians, current estimates show that underinvestment has other costs – about $1 trillion by the end of this decade. America’s economy depends on a healthy transportation network, and our needs greatly outnumber our existing resources.”

The recitation of the list and cost of needed infrastructure repairs is a grim undertaking. Inevitably, it is an exercise that makes any broad-based funding solution seem out of reach. So it is important to give a nod to some of what is being done, however piecemeal.

In December, Obama signed a five-year, $305 billion transportation law to put “Americans to work rebuilding our crumbling” infrastructure – the first time since 2005 that Congress authorized such spending on a cycle longer than two years. Obama said that longer time gives state and local governments the certainty they need to plan and invest.

In California, one interesting approach is being tried by Caltrans: On July 1 it started a pilot project with 5,000 volunteers who agreed to log their travels “to determine whether a user fee on miles driven is more appropriate than the gas tax” as a means to obtain funds for highway repairs, Caltrans director Dougherty told me. In the pilot, several systems are being studied, including having drivers take a periodic picture of their odometers or using a smartphone application to tally up their mileage.

In another development, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors put on this November’s ballot Measure B, which would impose a 30-year, half-cent sales tax increase to raise $3.6 billion for road and transit improvement.

“Our infrastructure is beyond its useful life,” Ed Mortimer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive director for transportation and infrastructure, told me. “As a country, we need to figure out how to rebuild it right and how we can use technology to make it better” in a world where change is coming rapidly. “In Washington we have talked to Uber, and they see a third of their vehicles in the District of Columbia being driverless within the next five years. So some of this new technology isn’t that far in the future.”

In the big picture when all its failings are tallied, the nation’s aging infrastructure beckons as an assignment slip: It challenges America to reassess its enormous expenditures and in the process find the dollars to make repairing our infrastructure a reality. The country’s gain would be twofold: The rebuild would help keep the country competitive in the global economy, and millions of Americans would be employed to remake the face of the nation – from its potholes to its bridges.

Susan Sward is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Contact her at

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