The American society of Civil Engineers has been giving out a lot of C’s and D’s on our infrastructure status for many, many years, and we’ve grown accustomed to it. Ho-hum! There are so many eroding and failing dams in this country — I worked for a time on our National Dam Safety Program — that nobody pays attention until one fails, as recently happened a month ago in Southern Florida.
Then the media goes ballistic. News flash — they’re all failing to some extent. NBC News reported that this failure of a toxic waste reservoir south of Tampa has been feared and predicted for some time by environmental activists. It usually takes a calamity to get anything done in Washington.
I am not naïve about the fact that there is likely waste and inefficiency in a $2+ trillion (as yet) spending bill for infrastructure and possibly more for a tie-on bill to broaden the definition of infrastructure. And how do we assure that it won’t be overturned by the next and inevitable Republican administration?
Earlier in my career I worked on a number of large engineering and construction projects. and the costs always exceeded budgets. I was primarily a safety analyst, and we collectively got a bad rap for being “paralysis by analysis” folks. But there were a lot of legitimate reasons for cost overruns as well as for our analyses.
But we have to start somewhere, and the problems and failure modes of highways, bridges, tunnels, dams, and similar “structural infrastructures” always goes up, never improving.
It is unfortunate that some compromise between Republican and Democratic leadership to address these very broad and important needs seems to be off the table. Maybe some of the priorities of the Democrats are weighed too much in one direction. Maybe the scope of what’s in the legislation can be more focused and prioritized.
A fairly recent decision in March by the Senate parliamentarian is that a simple majority in the Senate likely could pass the Democrat version of this plan, when converted to a legislative act. The Republican — or at least Senate Minority leader McConnell — simply say that they want no part of it.
But it’s clear some things may have waited too long and must be fixed almost immediately. It’s unfortunate that only the environmental threat of a toxic waste water management system failure or similar health impact could bring this to a head.
There are many reasons to improve our infrastructure that don’t involve human health. What about the long hours sitting in traffic? What about the dislocation of the workforce to avoid ridiculously long commutes? What about the skewing effect of where people reside to be relatively close to work and its enormous impact on property values? What about exorbitant electric bills to address upgrading the transmission system?
Is a plan with some fat and misguided priorities better than a bipartisan infrastructure bill? I believe so, but either one, e.g., too heavy a tax burden and overly ambitious plan or total inaction, will likely miss the mark of the best or optimum solution.
The only check on this fast-moving train appears to be Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, although some moderate Democratic senators seem to be getting on board, or so Manchin alleges. They need all 50 Democrats to agree to enact a bill along with the vice president’s tie-breaking vote. It’s also likely that a few more progressive Republican senators — stealthily as they don’t want to irritate donors — are working behind the scenes to put as much common sense as possible into these infrastructure bills.
There is a lot of high-stakes poker going on to get the necessary votes. Coal usage in the United States has been dropping for years as natural gas has filled this void rather nicely. However, there are environmental concerns about shale drilling to get the gas. We ship a lot of coal to China because they still rely heavily on coal for electrical power production (producing unwanted carbon release), and we get trade concessions in return.
This poker game gets extremely complicated since it involves global warming concerns, and the supply and demand flow of international trade.
My engineering left-brained thinking hopes this is a successful endeavor and some things that need fixing get done.
Dave Pyatt writes from Mount Airy. Reach him at DPyatt2@verizon.net.
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