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Op-Ed

Many calls, but little action on infrastructure

Posted

The potholes that used to greet us each spring, but now are with us year-round, remind us of the condition of our roads and bridges. They also remind us of the damage caused by water and weather. The hurricanes of 2020 cost $39 billion in damage, and more than 100 lives were lost. The wildfires in the West caused $16.5 billion in damage, and the drought there caused $4.5 billion. Why are we not better prepared for these assaults on our safety and livelihoods?

President Barack Obama called for investment in the nation’s vulnerable, decaying and outdated infrastructure, but Congress failed to act. President Donald Trump urged a national commitment to infrastructure investment, but Congress balked. And once again, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its quadrennial assessment of the nation’s infrastructure, and gave it a grade of C-minus.

Eleven of the 17 infrastructure categories, however, earned D’s. How would you react if your son or daughter brought home such grades from school? And these grades are for the visible parts of our infrastructure, not the less visible, like broadband, and the invisible, like the internet.

New York’s part of the report card indicates dire conditions for our region. According to the report, driving on roads in need of repair in New York costs each of us $625 per year, and 9.9 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient. Drinking-water improvements in New York would cost an estimated $22.8 billion. Some 424 dams are considered potentially high hazard. Long Island’s transportation systems are the most congested in the nation.

As we know from the brutal winter storms, extreme cold, devastating rainstorms, hurricanes and floods, many of our systems are susceptible to catastrophic failure. And such failures are likely to increase because of climate change.

The categories the ASCE evaluated include roads, bridges, airports, dams, levees, storm-water systems, railroads, drinking-water systems, inland waterways, ports, the electrical grid, and transit, such as subway tunnels and stations. The organization estimates that the U.S. is spending only half of what is needed just to bring these systems up to par. Even more is needed to upgrade electrical and cybersecurity networks. Furthermore, it is estimated that if the investments are not made, the country could lose $10 trillion in economic growth and more than 3 million jobs within 17 years.

What a catalog of loss. Economic decline, higher costs for consumers and businesses, and damage to our quality of life are the quantifiable effects of our neglect.

Leading business leaders have called for action. Black Rock CEO Larry Fink called on Trump, and has now called on President Biden, to prioritize infrastructure investment for the nation’s well-being. Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has called attention to the crisis of crumbling infrastructure. Even the U.S. military and the Department of Homeland Security have noted the ways in which decaying bridges and systems are interfering with the country’s capacity to defend itself.

Fortunately, Biden has heard these calls, and has promoted infrastructure spending not only for competitive and security reasons, but also as a way of creating jobs and securing an equitable clean-energy future.

In the past, Congress has said no to such spending because it feared that new taxes would be required to pay the bill. But even without agreeing to “no new taxes” for our numerous needs in so many areas, especially for children and schooling, history suggests that there is a way to get going.

Early in the 20th century, the U.S. sold Liberty Bonds to the public, to encourage citizens to take part in a patriotic act and to raise the funds necessary to support our allies in World War I. The bonds, issued in denominations of $10 to $10,000, also introduced many families to the idea of investing for their own future. It is estimated that two-thirds of American wage earners owned bonds.

In 2002, the federal government introduced a program of Liberty Bonds to help rebuild lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks, and raised billions of dollars.

Why not a new Liberty Bonds program to raise at least some of the money necessary to secure our systems and networks? Money saved in the bank is yielding little in the way of return on investment, but it could be invested in tax-exempt bonds yielding better, though still modest, interest rates. That could mitigate some of the required tax burden. Furthermore, major banks and investment firms could be called on to take on back-office operations and distribution as a service to society, and demonstrate their often-cited commitment to environmental, social and corporate governance.

Together, people, corporations and the government could heed the calls for action and take dramatic steps toward preserving the nation’s security and brightening its future.

Robert Scott is president emeritus and university professor emeritus of Adelphi University in Garden City.