The New Orleans levees that gave way when Hurricane Katrina roared off the Gulf of Mexico nearly two years ago, and the Minneapolis highway bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River this past week are dramatic examples of a huge problem in the United States that grows demonstrably worse with each passing year.
Experts clinically describe the problem as our crumbling infrastructure. In plain English, that means our roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, courthouses, school houses, and public universities are falling apart. Those who own their own house or condo would be distraught if their property was in such tough shape. And tenants would be looking for a new landlord if their apartments fell into similar disrepair.
Even so, taxpayers and governments at the national, state, and local levels seem — against all the dictates of common sense — united in ignoring this crisis.
One reason for this is the conceptual nature of what we are up against: society has stopped looking at our infrastructure as a portfolio of assets that needs maintenance in order to remain productive investments. It is time for that to change.
Governor Deval Patrick has taken a welcome step in the right direction with his proposal that the state embark on a controlled and focused program to raise $12 billion to preserve our public assets and, in the process, to uphold public safety.
After all, the American Society of Civil Engineers, which is not a collection of excitable folks, almost three years ago issued a catalogue of pressing needs related to Massachusetts infrastructure. They are as follows:
• Sixty-one percent of roads are in poor or mediocre condition
• Fifty-one percent of bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete
• Thirty-seven percent of urban highways are congested
• Highway traffic is up 14 percent while population is up only six percent
• Bad roads annually cost motorists $1.7 billion — $361 per driver — in car repairs
• Seventy-five percent of schools have at least one major structural inadequacy
• Eighty percent of schools have at least one environmental deficiency
• Maintaining drinking-water quality will require $5.88 billion in spending during the next 20 years
• Coping with wastewater will cost $3.8 billion during the same period
• There are 333 high-hazard dams in the state, whose failure — if that were to happen — would likely cause loss of life
• There are 40 otherwise deficient dams
• The cost of fixing the worst of those dams is estimated at $143.5 million
These are sobering facts. The implications of not facing up to their reality is not only scary, it is dangerous.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Bostonians woke up to the news that the Storrow Drive tunnel soon slated for repair is, in fact, in much worse condition than had been previously thought. Rather than treating this news as a wake-up call, it was received — at least by many in broadcasting — as if this was simply another indication that government officials are not doing their jobs. The fact that the money for vital repairs such as these is too often not at our disposition was not part of the public discussion.