March 30, 2020

Our Future As Past

By Stephen Tuttle | May 6, 2017

Our bridges might not be falling down but way too many are getting close. The rest of our infrastructure isn't doing much better.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) completes a quadrennial survey of our infrastructure; their most recent report card gives us a D-plus. 

Infrastructure is more than just roads and bridges. It's also the power grid, rail system, air transport system, water treatment, solid waste disposal, sewers, storm sewers, inland waterways including the Great Lakes, ports, dams and levees, oil and gas pipelines -- the systems on which our daily lives depend.

We drive on roads that are passable (with the exception of a section of Eighth Street in Traverse City) and bridges that seem solid enough. Unless we live in Flint, when we turn on the tap, safe water emerges, flip a switch and our lights come on, the stuff we buy finds its way to stores, or if we buy online, to our doors. Plenty of it, including water and waste, is underground and we're oblivious until something goes wrong.

But the systems we take for granted are getting very old and in need of TLC or replacement. ASCE now lists more than 56,000 bridges, including more than 1,200 in Michigan, as structurally deficient. They classify 400 dams, including 88 in Michigan, as hazardous or at risk of failure. The power grid is sufficiently vulnerable that a single lightning strike or well-placed terrorist bomb could shut down large swaths of the country.  

Here in Traverse City we're being told we'll need $2 million annually to replace, repair and maintain the 34 mile-long storm sewer system that discharges storm water and spring run-off, along with whatever else it picks up along the way, directly into our waterways. That is $2 million every year forever for just one piece of one infrastructure system.

How did we get so far behind on so much? 

Much of our infrastructure is decades old, sometimes older. It's a testament to the people who designed and built these systems, and those subsequently maintaining them, that they've lasted as long as they have as well as they have.

Traverse City's storm sewer system is more than half a century old. Our interstate highway system is a child of the Eisenhower administration, major dams built during Franklin Roosevelt's administration as part of WPA programs. Much of our power grid is just as old.

It's not as if we didn't know. Presidents Reagan Clinton, Bush and Obama all made efforts only to be repelled by Congress and the cost.

There's the rub; the needed work is massive and massively expensive. There is no cheap way to build, maintain or repair infrastructure. It is expensive for the feds, for every state and every municipality.

ASCE says we need nearly $3.5 trillion to catch up to current needs. The federal government says we need more than $800 billion just for roads and bridges. Upgrading and securing our power grids could be another $1 trillion.

Traverse City searches for grant money because there is simply no way to afford our infrastructure needs without further taxing an already overtaxed population. Virtually no municipality or state can afford it on its own.

President Trump has proposed, in the most general terms, spending $1 trillion on infrastructure. He has suggested, again generally, we will be able to pay for it with revenue saved or generated by repealing Obamacare, instituting tax reform and renegotiating trade deals.

Even if all three of those things happen, there is no trillion dollar bounty to be found. At least the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the non-partisan group that looks at such things, couldn't find it. In fact, no one has yet found the needed funds.

One Traverse City Commissioner says we'll have to find creative ways to finance the storm sewer spending. That would be great, but just a start. Storm sewers aren't the only aging bit of infrastructure in the city, and just about all of it will eventually require more than diligent maintenance. Creative financing will be a necessity.

The infrastructure issue is one national politicians like talking about, but haven't done much to solve. A good argument can be made that it's significantly more important than firing missiles at a Syrian airfield or dropping more bombs on Afghanistan. 

If President Trump can find $1 trillion dollars for infrastructure projects, that will create tens of thousands of jobs and help address what is surely a national security issue; deteriorating water, power, communication and transportation systems are a genuine threat.

It isn't likely bridges will start collapsing tomorrow while we huddle in darkness without water. Nor is it impossible. A commitment to at least start fixing, upgrading or replacing the infrastructure of our lives needs to happen now. Or our future might look like our past.    

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