Letting the nation’s roads and bridges deteriorate may worsen traffic congestion and add to our commuting woes, but when water and sewer systems begin to fail our very civilization is at risk. That is the message of a recent story in The Washington Post drawing attention to the alarming state of the nation’s water and sewer infrastructure. The story looks at the Washington D.C. system as a poster child for neglected and dilapidated municipal utilities. The average age of the District water pipes is 77 years and a great many were laid in the 19th century, notes the Post article. Emergency crews rush from site to site to tackle an average of 450 breaks a year. ("Billions needed to upgrade America’s leaky water infrastructure," by Alfred Halsey III, January 2, 2012).
Antiquated municipal water and sewer systems are indeed a ticking bomb— all the more so since their deterioration, unlike that of highways and bridges— remains invisible until a break occurs. But maintaining water and sewer infrastructure in a state of good repair is a fairly straightforward challenge. Water supply and sewers are a public utility and as such they can cover their maintenance and replacement costs through user fees. So can many other public services such as electricity, natural gas, broadband and telecommunications. The ability to charge for service (and to raise rates as necessary) assures public utilities a steady and reliable stream of revenue with which to maintain, preserve and grow their assets.
Finding the resources to keep transportation infrastructure in good order is a more difficult challenge. Unlike traditional utilities, roads and bridges have no rate payers to fall back on. Politicians and the public seem to attach a low priority to fixing aging transportation infrastructure and this translates into a lack of support for raising fuel taxes or imposing tolls.
Investment in infrastructure did not even make the top ten list of public priorities in the latest Pew Research Center survey of domestic concerns. Calls by two congressionally mandated commissions to vastly increase transportation infrastructure spending have gone ignored. So have repeated pleas by advocacy groups such as Building America’s Future, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Nor has the need to increase federal spending on infrastructure come up in the numerous policy debates held by the Republican presidential candidates. Even President Obama seems to have lost his former fervor for this issue. In his last State-of-the-Union message he made only a perfunctory reference to "rebuilding roads and bridges." High-speed rail and an infrastructure bank, two of the President’s past favorites, were not even mentioned.
Why pleas to increase infrastructure funding fall on deaf ears
There are various theories why appeals to increase infrastructure spending do not resonate with the public. One widely held view is that people simply do not trust the federal government to spend their tax dollars wisely. As proof, evidence is cited that a great majority of state and local transportation ballot measures do get passed, because voters know precisely where their tax money is going. No doubt there is much truth to that. Indeed, thanks to local funding initiatives and the use of tolling, state transportation agencies are becoming increasingly more self-reliant and less dependent on federal funding
Another explanation, and one that I find highly plausible, has been offered by Charles Lane, editorial writer for the Washington Post. Wrote Lane in an October 31, 2011 Washington Post column, "How come my family and I traveled thousands of miles on both the east and west coast last summer without actually seeing any crumbling roads or airports? On the whole, the highways and byways were clean, safe and did not remind me of the Third World countries. ... Should I believe the pundits or my own eyes?" asked Lane ("The U.S. infrastructure argument that crumbles upon examination").
Along with Lane, I think the American public is skeptical about alarmist claims of "crumbling infrastructure" because they see no evidence of it around them. State DOTs and transit authorities take great pride in maintaining their systems in good condition and, by and large, they succeed in doing a good job of it. Potholes are rare, transit buses and trains seldom break down, and collapsing bridges, happily, are few and far between.
The oft-cited "D" that the American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s infrastructure (along with an estimate of $2.2 trillion needed to fix it) is taken with a grain of salt, says Lane, since the engineers’ lobby has a vested interest in increasing infrastructure spending, which means more work for engineers. Suffering from the same credibility problem are the legions of road and transit builders, rail and road equipment manufacturers, construction firms, planners and consultants that try to make a case for more money.
This does not mean that the country does not need to invest more resources in preserving and expanding its highways and transit systems. The "infrastructure deficit" is real. It’s just that in making a case for higher spending, the transportation community must do a much better job of explaining why, how and where they propose to spend those funds. Usupported claims that the nation’s infrastructure is "falling apart" will not be taken seriously.
People want to know where their tax dollars are going and what exactly they’re getting for their money. Infrastructure advocates must learn from state and local ballot measures to justify and document the needs for federal dollars with more precision so that the public regains confidence that their money will be spent wisely and well.