December 9th, 2012
Across the coasts of New York and New Jersey, hundreds of millions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage are spilling into waterways and the ocean. The immediate cause is equipment damage from Hurricane Sandy, but as Michael Schwirtz recently reported in The Times, aging plants like one in Nassau County on Long Island were leaking long before the storm, flooding neighborhood streets with sewage during downpours.
There are thousands of faltering sewage plants like these across the country, staffed by operators who dread rainy days. Civil engineers in every state are monitoring ominous cracks in roads and bridges that carry freight and school buses. And millions of transit commuters are awaiting new equipment and long-deferred maintenance on systems that are reliable only when the sun is shining.
The need for investment in public works, never more urgent, has become a casualty of Washington’s ideological wars. Republicans were once reliable partners in this kind of necessary spending. But since President Obama spent about 12 percent of the 2009 stimulus on transportation, energy and other infrastructure programs, Republicans have made it a policy to demonize these kinds of investments.
When the president asked recently for a modest $50 billion for transportation improvements in the “fiscal cliff” talks, Republicans literally laughed out loud. There will be no stimulus in any deal, said Representative Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, the incoming chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Obviously the economy needs another boost, in part because the austerity being demanded by Republicans is likely to slow down growth. Big government construction projects put people to work, and those new jobs have enormous ripple effects — $1.44 in benefits for every government dollar spent on public works. An infrastructure bank for energy and water projects, started with $10 billion in government seed money, could leverage hundreds of billions in private investments.
But the biggest reason to spend money on these projects is that they are desperately needed in every city and state. Around the country, there are 70,000 structurally deficient bridges; one of them, in southern New Jersey, collapsed under a train last week, sending tank cars full of flammable gas into a creek. There are 4,000 dams in need of repair, and the electrical grid in this supposedly advanced country ranks 32nd in the world in reliability, behind Slovenia’s. Those Republicans who deride this investment as worthless stimulus might want to explain to freezing homeowners why it is too expensive to bury fragile power lines.
The president’s $50 billion proposal for highways, rail, mass transit and aviation, hard as it will be to achieve, is only a slim down payment on the real job. (He proposed the same package last year as part of the American Jobs Act, which Republicans ignored.) Most estimates put the cost of basic repairs at more than $2 trillion, and that does not even include long-range upgrades to the electrical grid, storm protection and mass transit.
Around the country, ridership on transit has grown significantly since the 1990s, but federal investments have fallen far short. The Transportation Department says that if $18 billion were spent every year — 40 percent more than is being spent now — transit systems might get to a state of good repair by 2028. But that does not include spending to improve service or keep up with growth, or to protect systems like New York’s from storm damage. (The city’s subway system needs $4.8 billion just to recover from Hurricane Sandy.)
The NextGen satellite program desperately needed to replace the nation’s clogged air traffic control system will cost at least $30 billion, but much of that money is likely to be cut by the automatic sequester of spending put in place by Republicans last year. This investment will ultimately save the airline industry vast amounts now lost to delays and excess fuel consumption, but like so many other important projects, it is being eroded in the blind ideological rush to cut everything. As bridges fall, subway riders are stranded and flight delays pile up, the cost of this shortsightedness will continue to mount.