Collapsing infrastructure could bring US to economic calamity 

At a potential cost to the U.S. economy of millions of dollars, the 80-year-old, overstressed system of levees and spillways on the Mississippi River has to be shut down temporarily.

A main bridge in Minneapolis collapses, killing 13 people.

Ancient water lines and sewer lines rupture in the nation’s capital.

An analysis by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst and Young finds China is spending 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure; the United States is spending less than 3 percent.

China plans completion of a 10,000-mile high-speed rail system in nine years; the United States is still grappling with a years’ long controversy over rail. Brazil and India also have pulled ahead in planning to meet transportation needs.

The results are everywhere. Spring rains after winter storms create enormous potholes. Devastating floods and droughts are catastrophic. Traffic jams reduce productivity by millions of hours.

For 30 years, the United States has defied the need to repair and upgrade its infrastructure, spending the money on war, on defense, on entitlements — everything but making sure the roof wouldn’t leak.

The horrific $14 trillion national debt has spooked everyone; we will spend the summer debating whether the United States will default on its debts come August. Rightly insisting that the status quo has to change, Republicans are determined to wring out a compromise that drastically cuts spending. Democrats are determined not to be bullied into cuts they argue will hurt the poor.

If we do not act, which looks likely because of the determination in Washington to cut spending, and Congress consistently refuses to pass a surface transportation planning act, this is what will happen:

Americans will spend an ever-greater portion of their incomes on services such as tap water, some of which will be undrinkable. There will be new tolls on highway driving and bridges and existing tolls will dramatically increase. Gasoline prices will soar, pushed by higher federal gas taxes.

Some cash-strapped cities will simply stop providing basic services, letting private companies take them over. Road maintenance in rural areas will become problematic. Bridges will collapse and not be rebuilt.

The badly needed new national electric grid will not be developed. A state-of-the-art satellite air traffic control system will not be built.

In 30 years, there will be almost 100 million more people living in the United States, but the infrastructure will not support 400 million.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

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