Make Our Infrastructure Into A Super-Infrastructure

In a fool's paradise, who is the fool?

The big Midwestern floods just put an explanation point on the truth most of us know but seem powerless to do anything about: Our infrastructure is crumbling. “We” are powerless because we let the people who can do something, our elected federal officials, do nothing. Are we stoopid or unconscious or what? And we all just witnessed dikes breaking and homes, businesses and farms being ruined. Again.
"We need profound changes," said engineer Kumares Sinha of Purdue University. "We can't live in a fool's paradise." (From the same Reuters article)
Elected officials are afraid of the word “tax.” If something worthwhile needs doing and takes money to do it, our Congress and our Administration act like we are teenagers with credit cards. Actually pay for what we need? Horrors! Politicians who have the guts ask our citizens to sacrifice a bit to pay the freight on stuff that benefits the citizens? Whoa! Not me, Jack. Political suicide.
But just say the politicians are wrong, and the American folks realize that our arteries - freeways, Interstate highways, regular highways and roads and bridges - our sewage treatment plants, our water systems, our dikes and dams, our electrical grid are in big, big trouble. Bridges are collapsing, sewage is contaminating drinking water. Brownouts and total regional blackouts are looming. We are way behind many countries in our high speed Internet access. Much of the country is on the verge of running out of water.
ALL that stuff that we ALL depend on is falling apart.
Oh, it's messy and getting messier. We absolutely, undeniably, urgently have to fix it or just go down the competitive tube like water down a Toto toilet (Invented in Japan).
There is that trillion dollar plus estimate of what it will take to fix just the necessities of the infrastructure coming from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Trillion. That’s a thousand billions. Billion = a thousand millions. (I think people just let “trillion” roll off their brains like any other abstraction. Actually, it’s a bunch of real – as in we have to come up with it - money.)
Alas, the overwhelmingly dominant source of income for the Federal Government is taxes. That government “We the people” elect and which is “Of the people, by the people and for the people” is supported entirely by WE, that is Us. So unless we are going to put a trillion bucks on our credit card (said credit from China, Kuwait, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, et al), we have to tax ourselves to pay the bills.
So after all that hand wringing, here’s the point. Suppose we come to our senses and figure out a way to pay for this Big Fix of the crumbling framework of our economy, just how should we go about the actual fix?
Probably doing that will cost even more. Who knows, another trillion? The thing is, it will be the best investment we could ever make. Ever. If we are smart we will build an infrastructure that will support a new American economy. New kinds of business, new kinds of jobs – that pay better, have better benefits and are more secure if you are willing to work hard and learn a lot.
We’ve learned a lot about big highways since Eisenhower cranked up the Interstate system.

We have better designs, materials and traffic concepts than we had fifty years ago. We have huge new knowledge of the mistakes we have made in fitting man and nature together peacefully. We have new problems to solve with our growing population and the internationalization of our economy. So for starters, we can replace the infrastructure we have now with much more effective systems. (Rebuilding the dikes around New Orleans at the same height as the old ones, and sacrificing safer dikes for … for expediency, economy? is the absolute wrong way to replace infrastructure.)
But think of the “future” aspect, the “best in the world,” aspect, the “getting along with nature” aspect.
Example: Stop trying to fight the Mississippi River. Allow that monster to flood when it wants to and profit from those floods. Either move towns out of the floodplain or put super dikes around them. Let the river dikes give way – hell, help them give way – at strategic locations when the great waters roll. Collect that floodwater (after it has deposited its valuable silt to replenish bottom lands for farming (between floods)) and pipe it to the parched West to replenish aquifers, quench forest fires and keep rivers flowing. Now that’s an upgrade.
More examples: Make available to every home and business in the country the fastest Internet connections in the world and keep them that good. Build sewage treatment plants so good that the waste water is as drinkable as imported bottled water. Accommodate our immense truck fleet with their own roads or dedicated, car-free lanes on expanded Interstates. Get serious about massive desalination plants for quenching our growing thirst. Develop the highest speed, safest rail system on Earth.
Commit to a more distributed system of clean electric generation and rebuild the grid to facilitate that. Innovate new ways to do public transit that makes it as fast and convenient as our automobile culture is. Oh, and make clean coal actually clean. Now those are upgrades.
Think we are not up to it? Are those challenges too big for American ingenuity to handle? Have we become too lazy or too indulgent or too tight-fisted (“It’s my money, and I’m not giving it to the damn g’mint.”) to put America back in the poll position in world competition?
Plus, this kind of giant public works effort will create millions of excellent jobs for Americans - for years!

It’s a once-in-a-century chance to make the Big Fix. Without a fix, we die a slow economic death. With a “best-in-the-world” fix, we have a shot at being that Shining City on the Hill again. It’d make you proud.

Picture credits: FLOOD -Huffington Post; TRAINS - www.sbig.com/mb/tainai/tainai_pics.htm (OTHERS AVAILABLE BY REQUEST)


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