Two weeks ago, less than two days after concrete falling off an overhead bridge closed the Everett Turnpike in Nashua, the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president gathered to debate in Atlanta, Ga.
The events aren’t linked, of course, but concrete is falling, asphalt cracking, culverts clogging, steel corroding, traffic crawling, airport lines growing, flight delays showing, water pipes leaking, sewer lines failing and maintenance workers flailing all over America.
The nation’s infrastructure routinely receives poor to near-failing grades. Yet “infrastructure” was barely mentioned during the lackluster debate. Its moderators asked not one question about an issue that affects every American every day, an issue that costs the public hundreds of billions of dollars annually in wasted time, money and damage to public health.
Meanwhile, the president’s oft-promised plan to fund the rebuilding of the nation’s roads, schools, water systems and the like has, three years into his administration, failed to materialize. Acts that would increase funding to repair critical systems remain stuck in the sulfurous miasma enveloping Washington.
Occasionally, a little money does escape. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen recently announced a $12 million federal grant to replace a pair of bridges over the Connecticut River that connect Hinsdale, N.H., with Brattleboro, Vt. The grant, which will defray the $40 million cost of the bridge project, is part of what U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said is a $900 million infrastructure investment by the Trump administration. The need is far greater.
In its most recent report card the American Society of Civil Engineers pegged the investment required to make up for deferred maintenance at roughly $4.5 trillion. The report gave the nation’s infrastructure a grade of “D,” New Hampshire a “C-minus.”
Much of America’s infrastructure has exceeded its design life span or been rendered obsolete by increased population and other factors. More than 200,000 of the nation’s exfoliating bridges are a half-century or more old, many of its dams much older.
The average age of New Hampshire’s dams is 92. Few structures were designed to cope with the heavier rainfalls and more ferocious weather caused by climate change, so just bringing them up to snuff won’t be enough.
Some of the presidential contenders, namely former vice president Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have put forth reasonably solid plans to attack the infrastructure problem, coupled with tax proposals to pay for them. No plan, however, is likely to become a reality until long after the next presidential election.
The rest of the world, with Asian nations in the lead, is moving ahead with high-speed rail, cheap and near-universal cell phone and internet service, efficient public transportation systems, modernized ports and airports.
The bill to make up for decades of deferred maintenance is a debt that should not burden coming generations. It should be paid now by the generation that let the infrastructure fall into disrepair.
We don’t expect the next resident of the Oval Office to be “President Pothole.” We do expect that whoever holds that office will put people to work and boost the economy by making roads and bridges safe, water unquestionably clean, utility services reliable and communities able to meet the threats posed by a warming planet.
And this must be done while transitioning away from a fossil fuel economy.
Next time they gather, each presidential candidate should be asked exactly how he or she would go about doing that.
This editorial first appeared in the Concord Monitor on Nov. 24.