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Broken: US Infrastructure Needs Still Great

Back in 2008, after the Presidential election, I remember Rachel Maddow doing an interview with President-elect Obama and asking him about infrastructure needs, citing an American Society of Civil Engineering report giving the country a failing grade for infrastructure, with hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars in projects needed for upgrades and maintenance. The stimulus package did not have the infrastructure dollars necessary to put a dent in that. And so, here we are, three years later, with all these infrastructure needs still extant, with borrowing costs so low that the Treasury could borrow at a real negative interest rate, and still… nothing.

Although they are out of sight and out of mind except when they spring a leak, water and sewer systems are more vital to civilized society than any other aspect of infrastructure.

Rapidly deteriorating roads and bridges may stifle America’s economy and turn transportation headaches into nightmares, but if the nation’s water and sewer systems begin to fail, life as we know it will too. Without an ample supply of water, people don’t drink, toilets don’t flush, factories don’t operate, offices shut down and fires go unchecked. When sewage systems fail, cities can’t function and epidemics break out […]

And just like roads and bridges, the vast majority of the country’s water systems are in urgent need of repair and replacement. At a Senate hearing last month, it was estimated that, on average, 25 percent of drinking water leaks from water system pipes before reaching the faucet. The same committee was told it will take $335 billion to resurrect water systems and $300 billion to fix sewer systems.

This isn’t an optional investment. Without water infrastructure, chaos reigns. You can argue the same thing with important transportation arteries, particularly strategically important bridges. Cities would shut down, with major economic implications, without a functioning transportation system.

And yet these issues have been met in the Presidential campaign with silence. That’s true on Capitol Hill as well. The American Jobs Act included a national infrastructure bank, with $50 billion in up-front seed money for various projects. The Chamber of Commerce and organized labor support it. But it went nowhere. And with campaign season arriving 10 months early, I doubt you’ll hear about it again in 2012.

The only possibility that more attention will get paid to infrastructure needs would be in the event of a disaster in a major American city. And that’s too steep of a price to pay.

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David Dayen

David Dayen