• Time to invest
    March 14,2014

    The horrible explosion that took at least seven lives in New York City this week should be regarded as a wake-up call for all Americans who have thus far been far too inattentive to our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

    There’s one overriding reason for the inattention: Repairing the infrastructure, some of which is extremely old and vulnerable, will cost a huge amount of money. But if that money isn’t spent, the cost will be measured in lives, not dollars.

    The problem, of course, is that spending money to fix the infrastructure means spending tax revenues, and in the current political and economic climate dominating this country, many view the thought of raising taxes as evidence of fiscal irresponsibility.

    The day before this week’s deadly explosion, the Center for an Urban Future, a New York think tank, published a report that focused on the challenges facing America’s cities.

    “Caution Ahead: Overdue Investments For New York’s Aging Infrastructure” noted that the city’s 6,300 miles of gas mains are 56 years old and that 60 percent of them are made of unprotected steel or cast iron, materials no longer used because they are prone to cracks and subsequent leaks.

    Because of systemwide leaks, the main New York utility, Con Ed, routinely loses more than 2 percent of the gas it pumps to customers, the report noted.

    “Simply put, too much of the city’s essential infrastructure remains stuck in the 20th Century – a problem for a city positioning itself to compete with other global cities in today’s 21st Century economy,” the report continued.

    But the problem is by no means limited to New York City. In January, researchers from Stanford, Duke, and Boston University mapped nearly 6,000 places in Washington, D.C., where that city’s buried gas mains were leaking enough methane that it could be detected from the street.

    And two years ago, many of the same researchers identified more than 3,000 leaks in Boston in which the amount of gas in the air was measured at 15 times higher than the global background level.

    Here in Vermont, our efforts are steady, but still lagging. While much was made of the failure of school budgets in the state this Town Meeting Day, Vermonters voted in many investments in infrastructure, making use of historically low lending costs. But there are many more unmet needs.

    Alex Marshall, a senior fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City, writes about infrastructure issues for a magazine specializing in government affairs.

    “We don’t do public works in this country as ambitiously or as comprehensively as we should,” Marshall observed. “We don’t even do it as well as we used to. In comparison with other countries now, we lag even further behind, not only in size and scale but also in execution.”

    Other countries, as Marshall noted, do much better. For example, Europe has recently built or is in the process of building a series of infrastructure projects that have few if any counterparts in the United States.

    He cited the 31-mile train tunnel between England and France that opened in 1994; the Oresund Bridge (the longest in Europe) linking Denmark and Sweden), completed in 1999; the 35-mile Gotthard rail tunnel, which, when completed in 2016, will run under the Alps.

    And those projects, he noted, are dwarfed by what’s happening in Asia. He mentioned the relatively new airport in Hong Kong that features direct train service into the city.

    “Thanks to low interest rates caused by the ongoing financial crisis, coupled with the need for an economic jumpstart and construction companies in need of work (and able to work more cheaply), one would have thought this would be a perfect time for a massive renewal effort in this country.”

    It’s high time we take our nation’s infrastructure needs as seriously as the owners of sports franchises take their needs for new stadiums.

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