It has been little more than a year since the horrific collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis into the Mississippi River. Just like after the levee breach that left parts of New Orleans under 9 feet of water following Hurricane Katrina, there was the natural rallying cry to make the necessary repairs to ensure that something like this would never happen again. While the state of Minnesota has done a comprehensive job evaluating and addressing the structural integrity of its bridges, the Associated Press recently issued a report stating that there has been minimal improvement on this front nationwide. And as if that news weren't frightening enough, consider these facts:
•The U.S. population is expected to grow by 50 percent by 2050, much of that growth centered in big metropolitan areas, where traffic congestion already costs our economy $80 billion a year and where water and power systems are falling apart.
•More people equals more energy consumption. But oil and gas prices are escalating. That, plus the specter of climate change, means the way we power our cars, buildings and factories must change.
•Our infrastructure -- the buildings, roads, bridges, power lines and plumbing that make our country run -- is aging rapidly. It has been estimated that it will take $1.6 trillion dollars to make the requisite fixes -- and that's just for what's already in place. Without more funding, falling bridges and failing levees may become far more common.
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A decaying infrastructure. Jam-packed roads, cities and airports. Skyrocketing energy prices. A perfect storm of crises threatens not only our economic well-being, but our national security as well. We simply cannot expect to remain competitive in the global economy when the basic systems we need to prosper are underfunded and underperforming.
And worse, at a time when government at all levels faces budget deficits, finding the money to fix our infrastructure problems often means robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Why, then, given this undeniable set of daunting circumstances, isn't this issue given more prominence and attention in the presidential election? Obviously, economic and foreign-policy issues are going to take the lion's share of the headlines and candidate sound bites, but a crumbling infrastructure places our citizens at risk to a tragic accident, limits our productivity and economic viability, and is counter to achieving energy-independence.
When considering candidates for the nation's highest elected office, the public, the media and other elected officials need to pressure Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain to articulate their plans to tackle a decomposing infrastructure. It must be part of future presidential debates so that the issue can become part of the national discussion.
Earlier this year, the American Institute of Architects and the University of Minnesota presented a report to Congress that outlined the economic, environmental and public-health benefits of well-designed transportation projects. As part of the work that architects do to create the built environment and help plan communities, the AIA has a grant program that sends teams of architects, engineers, planners and other professionals across the country to help communities design walkable neighborhoods with ready access to public transportation. Building greener buildings and designing pedestrian-friendly communities has many benefits: less energy used, less traffic congestion and a healthier, better quality of life for all Americans.
Next year the federal transportation program is up for renewal, and the AIA supports a strong financial commitment to address unsafe highways and bridges in addition to making alternative transportation solutions a priority.
Infrastructure is admittedly not a very sexy topic. But the ability of America to be prosperous, competitive and safe depends upon the basic building blocks of our communities. It is up to all Americans to ask the candidates where they stand on the nation's infrastructure, because it affects all of us.
Christine McEntee is chief executive officer of the American Institute of Architects.