Pay Now or Really Pay Later!

March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

It was sheer tragedy when the outdated and insufficient levees in New Orleans were breached during Hurricane Katrina. The subsequent flooding resulted in billions of dollars worth of damage and hundreds of deaths.

Nearly 2 years later an interstate highway bridge in Minnesota collapsed leaving 13 dead and commuters in shock.

These incidents are the biggest disasters but indicative of the frightening state of the nation’s infrastructure shortcomings. At all levels of government, maintenance and expenditures on the facilities, services, and installations used by millions everyday are simply not enough.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2009 Report Card on the US’ Infrastructure is an appalling “D”. They recommend a 5-year investment at $2.2 trillion. While it’s natural to glaze over when the word “trillions” is mentioned, what is the alternative- more inaction? Infrastructure includes not just high-profile items like highways, bridges, and dams but also our drinking water and wastewater system, power grid, aviation installations, parks, and schools among others. Anyone experiencing overcrowded highways, crumbling schools, or rolling blackouts can point to infrastructure problems.

What to do? At the Federal level the Federal Highway Trust Fund is supported by the Federal Gas Tax but the rates haven’t been raised in years. Congress has had to cobble funds together this term to merely keep the funding solvent. Given the tough economic times, politicians have been quick to find any solution however short-sided to avoid raising taxes. Public/Private partnerships have had some minor successes and are a much easier “sell”. However, there are problems with selling off to the highest bidder. By doing so the public loses the final say in how roads will be maintained, what tolls could be charged for bridges, and what type of policies these private companies will have towards their employees. Companies may also be only willing to invest in the most well-traveled routes allowing others to decline. Will public/private partnerships include bidding by foreign companies too? If so, what could be the effects on our national security? The worst outcome of privatization is the government effectively reneging on a key aspect of the social compact with the citizenry neglecting to provide a decent and safe infrastructure for all.

Many elected officials seemingly lack the political courage to raise taxes or other revenues necessary to address maintenance or new projects. Kicking the can down the road will only continue the process of adding to the costs and ensuring the likelihood of more tragedies. Acting now will keep the costs of repair and/or obsolescence from growing and keep us all safe. A good benchmark might be for the Federal Government to spend at least 1% of GDP on infrastructure. Winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could free up a trillion dollars. Finally, the National Commission on Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing’s recommendation to increase the gas tax should be heeded.

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