The American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 report card on America’s infrastructure says it succinctly. The grade the ASCE gives for our deteriorating roads, dams, bridges, water and sewer systems, aviation, and other infrastructure components is a resounding … “D.” That means the facilities studied are in poor shape, and worse, that they place many Americans at risk.
Fortunately, there is a way to mitigate this condition — without even raising taxes. What’s more, we could create a substantial number of new jobs for a wide variety of trades and skills.
First, some brief notes on what needs to be done to get our country on the road to improvement, along with some cost figures:
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There are 84,000 dams in the country, with an average age of 52 years. Fourteen thousand are classified as “high hazard,” and to begin repair, an estimated $21 billion will be needed over the next several years for remediation.
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There are an estimated 240,000 drinking-water pipe breaks each year. Clearly, over time, all the pipes will have to be replaced — but the progress now is way too slow, and the deterioration is not being addressed.
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One in four Americans live within three miles of some hazardous-waste site — that is not now being cleaned up. The grade for this item is the same “D.” Solid waste, however, does get a “B” with the increase in recycling.
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Again, a “D” for the 100,000 miles of levees that must be kept in repair. They prevented an estimated $140 million in damage last year, a solid investment.
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Another “D,” and a serious one. An estimated $298 billion will be needed over the next 20 years to keep our pipes, plants and equipment safe and effective.
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Millions of trips are taken daily over bridges that are classified as deficient — and possibly dangerous. The ASCE estimates that about $20 billion annually is needed to upgrade maintenance; currently only about $12 billion is being spent.
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Still a “D,” despite the $91 billion being invested annually. About $170 billion is needed — and that would save $101 billion in wasted fuel and time. A nice ROI to improve a critical element in our society and economy.
Which brings us to the potential solution to getting this work done — and creating the jobs that go with it. It is called the F-35.
The F-35 is a joint strike fighter designed to be utilized by the Air Force, Navy and Marines. And therein lies the rub, and the cost. The Air Force wants a conventional fighter; the Navy one that can land on a carrier, and the Marines a vertical takeoff plane. All these from one essential design.
The program has been in progress for years, and the first operational aircraft (the Air Force version) still will not be ready until 2016. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates the program cost at $12.6 billion a year through 2037 — with a total cost of almost $400 billion! That’s if we are lucky. The cost per plane has risen from $81 million each in 2001 to $161 million each today. And tomorrow?
The fact is we are already spending more on our military than roughly the next 10 countries combined. The days of aerial dogfighting are well behind us, and missiles generally mean you do not even see your enemy. And we still have legacy aircraft that are effective and well-maintained.
If and when ground support is needed from the air, we have effective weapons there as well. Drones and pilotless planes are on the upswing. As for the Navy, carriers are moving down on the weapons ladder because of their vulnerability. All in all, we seem to be chasing a very expensive program of the past.
Why this program? Clearly it is the fact that there are many people employed by the contractor, Lockheed Martin, in various congressional districts; additionally, Lockheed contributed funds to 425 members of Congress last election cycle. But legislators fail to realize that other jobs would be created by investing in needed infrastructure in their districts — good jobs, involving many skills and trades.
A missile launched is millions of dollars spent in an instant without return. A school built, a bridge repaired, a new water main system for a city, a dam strengthened, a road improved and so on — these are investments that last for decades and make our country better, safer and stronger. In short, the repair now really needed most is the repair of our priorities.
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Myles Spicer is a retired ad agency owner.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.