Rebuilding America: Investing in Our Infrastructure


8-10-07, 9:27 am

In the past two years, America has experienced two tragic and shocking disasters—the toppling of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and last week's collapse of the I‑35W bridge in Minneapolis. Both serve as painful and costly wake-up calls to the urgent need to fix and maintain our nation's crumbling infrastructure. Both of these horrifying events were not entirely unpredictable. Just like the failure of the U.S. power transmission system in the Northeast Blackout of 2003, in all cases the warning signs have been there, but our government has failed to act in a substantive and timely manner to address them.

The loss of lives, economic disruption and a declining quality of life are the price that working families, communities and business will continue to pay because of our failure to adequately invest in the maintenance and upgrade of our infrastructure.

We count on the nation’s infrastructure to be an engine of commerce moving goods to market on our roads, waterways, rails and air. Families count on it every time they get a drink of clean water from their sink, flush the toilet, turn on the heat or switch on a light. Communities depend on their school buildings, public transit systems, dams, levees and industrial sites. Infrastructure is a key to America’s economic progress and quality of life. However, in many ways, this foundation of our success is taken for granted and remains invisible until catastrophe strikes.

The dual Mississippi River disasters are the most recent visible evidence of the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has spoken out for years about imminent problems. ASCE’s “2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure” gave the nation a 'D.' The group estimated that a $1.6 trillion investment over the next five years is needed to fix these problems and rebuild America. The report is both a damning indictment of neglect and a recipe for disaster:

* 27.1 percent of the nation’s 590,750 bridges were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. It will cost $9 billion a year for 20 years to eliminate all bridge deficiencies. * Poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists $54 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, and congestion on the nation's roadways costs drivers $63 billion a year. However, the $59 billion spent annually is well below the $94 billion needed each year to improve and maintain transportation infrastructure. * Limited rail capacity has created significant chokepoints and delays. However, freight rail is expected to increase at least 50 percent by 2020. In addition, intercity passenger and commuter rail service is recognized as a good investment. Each year, $12 billion to $13 billion is needed to maintain existing rail infrastructure and expand for future growth. * Demand for air travel is projected to grow 4.3 percent annually through 2015. Airport capacity issues, including failure to invest adequately in air traffic control, must be addressed to avoid costly delays in the future. With the projected increase in passenger traffic, airports are at risk for seasonal and peak-period delays. * Waterways move large volumes of bulk commodities at a fraction of the cost of rail or trucks, but of the 257 locks on 12,000 miles of inland waterways operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, nearly 50 percent are functionally obsolete. By 2020, this will rise to 80 percent. * Federal funding for drinking water and wastewater remains at $850 million annually, less than 10 percent of the total national requirement. Aging systems discharge billions of gallons of untreated sewage into U.S. surface waters each year. The EPA estimates that $390 billion will be needed over the next 20 years to adequately address these problems. * Between 1998 and 2005, the number of unsafe dams rose by 33 percent to more than 3,500. It will take $10.1 billion over the next 12 years to address all critical non-federal dams. Many states have large numbers of unsafe dams, including Pennsylvania (325), New Jersey (193) and Ohio (825). All are part of an increasing number of high-hazard dams—dams whose failure would cause loss of human life. By 2005, there were more than 11,000 high-hazard-potential dams. * In spite of increasing demand, power transmission capacity has decreased. In addition, maintenance expenditures have decreased 1 percent annually since 1992. The Department of Energy has said the system was not designed to meet present demand and is in urgent need of modernization. * Federal funding for cleanup of toxic waste sites has steadily decreased since 1998. There are 1,237 contaminated sites on the National Priorities List, with a possible addition of 10,154. In 2003, 205 cities had 'brownfield' sites awaiting cleanup. It is estimated that their redevelopment would generate more than 576,000 jobs. * In 2002, Americans produced 369 million tons of solid waste, of which only about a quarter was recycled or recovered. Nationally, states have disposal capacity for another 19 to 20 years, though a number of states are nearing the end of their ability to manage waste within their borders and their equipment is at capacity and aging. * When last assessed by the federal government in 1999, it was estimated that $127 billion was needed to bring school facilities to good condition. Other sources estimate it will take $268 billion. * Many of our nation's public parks, beaches and recreational harbors are falling into a state of disrepair, with an estimated maintenance backlog of $6.1 billion. Much of the initial construction was done more than 50 years ago. These facilities are anchors for tourism and economic development and often provide the public's only access to the country's cultural, historic and natural resources.

Our nation cannot continue to careen from one preventable disaster to another. The future of our economy and our quality of life depend on the health of the nation’s infrastructure. Investing in it will create good jobs while improving the living standards of working families and their communities.

We agree with the American Society of Civil Engineers that it is time to “place the protection of safety, health and welfare at the forefront of our nation’s priorities.”

The AFL-CIO calls upon Congress and the president to rebuild America. Our government must make the significant investments needed to upgrade and maintain the nation’s infrastructure. We need to find the resources to make this happen and ensure that we take advantage of this opportunity to create good jobs for America's workers, both in construction and production of the materials needed. This will require courage, leadership and vision, but we cannot afford not to act.


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