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The New York Times

Risking the Future

I wonder what it will take to get this country serious about repairing and rebuilding its crumbling and increasingly obsolete infrastructure.

The catastrophe in New Orleans didn't do it. Yes, that was an infrastructure tragedy. As the historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in his remarkable book, "The Great Deluge":

"What people didn't yet fully comprehend was that the overall disaster, the sinking of New Orleans, was a man-made debacle, resulting from poorly designed levees and floodwalls."

And the spectacular rush-hour collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people, was not enough to get us serious.

Not even the terrible economic downturn that has gripped the country - a downturn that could be eased by a truly big-time surge of infrastructure investment - has been enough to get the leaders of the country to do the right thing.

We're rushing to bail out the banking industry for what? What kind of country will we have once the bankers are fat and happy again? The U.S. will still be a nation with a pathetic mid-20th-century infrastructure struggling to make it in a dynamic 21st-century world. It's a blueprint for sustained national decline.

The reason to seize this particular moment to move with a laserlike focus on the infrastructure is because of the desperate need to stop the advancing rot, and because rebuilding the infrastructure is a phenomenal source of employment.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, in a report released last week, essentially described the state of American infrastructure as dreadful. More than a quarter of the nation's bridges were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Public transportation systems and the nation's dams and levees are generally in sorry shape, many of them more than a half-century old.

Listen to what the report had to say about the water we drink:

"America's drinking water systems face an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion to replace aging facilities that are near the end of their useful life and to comply with existing and future federal water regulations. This does not account for growth in the demand for drinking water over the next 20 years. Leaking pipes lose an estimated seven billion gallons of clean drinking water a day."

The society gave the nation's infrastructure an overall grade of D and said it would require an investment of $2.2 trillion over five years to get it back into decent shape.

When you juxtapose this tremendous national need with the wholesale destruction of employment that has occurred over the past several months (and that is expected to continue for some time), you have to wonder why President Obama and Congressional leaders are not moving with extraordinary quickness to put together an infrastructure investment program that is both vast and visionary.

Instead, we have infrastructure spending in the Democrats' proposed stimulus package that, while admirable, is far too meager to have much of an impact on the nation's overall infrastructure requirements or the demand for the creation of jobs.

Among those who have expressed their concerns publicly is Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Democrat and persistent advocate of infrastructure investment. Just prior to President Obama's inauguration, Mr. Rendell said of the stimulus package being considered by the House: "Anybody who thinks - if the president-elect thinks, or the team thinks - that this is the answer to America's infrastructure needs is in a different universe."

The big danger is that some variation of the currently proposed stimulus package will pass, another enormous bailout for the bankers will be authorized, and then the trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits will make their appearance, looming like unholy monsters over everything else, and Washington will suddenly lose its nerve.

The mantra (I can hear it now) will be that we can't afford to spend any more money on the infrastructure, or on a big health care initiative, or any of the nation's other crying needs. Suddenly fiscal discipline will be the order of the day and the people who are suffering now will suffer more, and the nation's long-term prospects will be further damaged as its long-term needs continue to be neglected.

We no longer seem to learn much from history. Time and again an economic boom has followed a period of sustained infrastructure investment. Think of the building of the Erie Canal, which connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Think of the rural electrification program, the interstate highway system, the creation of the Internet.

We're suffering now from both a failure of will and of imagination. I remember the financier Felix Rohatyn telling me, "A modern economy needs a modern platform, and that's the infrastructure."

History tells us the same thing.

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Bob Herbert

Bob Herbert, former staff columnist for the New York Times focusing on politics, urban affairs and social trends, is now a distinguished senior fellow at Demos.

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