Investing in infrastructure is not busy work
As the smoke clears in San Bruno, Calif., where a gas pipeline exploded, likely as a result of improper maintenance, I’d like to clear up some misunderstandings raised in the comments and e-mails that I received about my last post.
One of my proposals (borrowed from economists both national and local) was that we should help revitalize our economy by applying direct government spending to employ people to fixing our failing infrastructure. Along with others, my fellow columnist Thomas Molitor’s comments likened investing in infrastructure to hiring “one unemployed to dig a ditch and hir(ing) another unemployed to fill it in.”
More than digging a ditch
Many people will recognize that this is an overly-simplistic representation of any serious proposal to repair our crumbling infrastructure. In Molitor’s representation, there is not real work to be done, and the direct government spending would be wasted on what many people call make-work projects. That’s not what I’m talking about, of course. In fact, since we’ve put off improving our infrastructure for so long, there’s plenty of work to do.
Plenty of work to do
The 2009 American Society of Engineers’ Report Card for America’s infrastructure gave us an overall grade of D. They estimate that it would cost $5.5 trillion over the next five years to repair our infrastructure deficiencies.
Here’s how the New York Times summarized the findings:
“More than a quarter of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Leaky pipes lose an estimated seven billion gallons of clean drinking water every day. And aging sewage systems send billions of gallons of untreated wastewater cascading into the nation’s waterways each year.”
Here’s a summary of the society’s findings for New Mexico’s infrastructure:
- 19 percent of New Mexico’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
- There are 181 high-hazard dams in New Mexico. A high hazard dam is defined as a dam whose failure would cause a loss of life and significant property damage.
- 167 of New Mexico’s 398 dams are in need of rehabilitation to meet applicable state dam safety standards.
- 93 percent of high-hazard dams in New Mexico have no emergency action plan (EAP). An EAP is a predetermined plan of action to be taken including roles, responsibilities and procedures for surveillance, notification and evacuation to reduce the potential for loss of life and property damage in an area affected by a failure or mis-operation of a dam.
- New Mexico’s drinking water infrastructure needs an investment of $922 million over the next 20 years.
- New Mexico ranked 10th in the quantity of hazardous waste produced and 44th in the total number of hazardous waste producers.
- New Mexico reported an unmet need of $15.1 million for its state public outdoor recreation facilities and parkland acquisition.
- 22 percent of New Mexico’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
- 19 percent of New Mexico’s major urban roads are congested.
- Vehicle travel on New Mexico’s highways increased 66 percent from 1990 to 2007.
- New Mexico has $160 million in wastewater infrastructure needs.
Disasters like the gas pipeline explosion last week and the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis garnered nationwide attention, but smaller infrastructure failures happen frequently. According to Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, pipeline failures like the one in California happen every other day. As cities have spread into open spaces, people often don’t know that they live above these pipe systems, 60 percent of which are over four decades old. As of last year some of the piping was still made of wood. It’s clear from the list above that there’s plenty of work to be done in New Mexico and across the nation.
Preparing the way for renewable energy
According to RepowerAmerica, a clean energy advocacy group, here’s the problem with our energy infrastructure:
“The U.S. electricity transmission and distribution system — or ‘grid’ — is in critical need of an upgrade… The current grid is a series of independently operating regional grids – it can’t meet the needs of a nation whose economy would benefit substantially from the system optimization that comes with national interconnection. Its limitations and vulnerability to failure also reportedly cost the nation $80 billion to $188 billion per year in losses due to grid-related power outages and power quality issues. And most critical to clean energy development, areas rich in renewable resources like solar, wind and geothermal are currently not well-served and thus have no ‘highway’ available to move power outputs to the markets where that power is needed.”
Here’s their solution:
“Modernize and expand the infrastructure for moving electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed through a unified national smart grid. Make that grid ‘smart’ so that it can monitor and balance the load, accommodate distributed energy from local areas and, in the near future, capitalize on a massive national fleet of clean plug-in cars. This new grid encompasses both the long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines and the lower voltage distribution systems that connect the power to customers.”
The above project builds infrastructure that unleashes the growing new energy technologies that will be essential to our energy security in the next century, and puts countless people back to work – hardly digging ditches to be filled in again.
Working together to get back to work
Most of us can’t build the streets that pass in front of our house or place the pipes that run beneath. We need to work together, usually through the auspices of government, to build safe, livable neighborhoods. We live in a time where we, and those who’ve come before, have neglected our public systems. This is dangerous, unwise and wasteful, especially at a time when so many sit on the sidelines unemployed.
Meanwhile, as I’ve argued before, our economy falters under the slow consumption and low consumer confidence caused by our continued high unemployment rate. Far from merely digging ditches only to be filled in again, investment in our faltering infrastructure will put people back to work doing things that need doing, while kick-starting the economy.
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