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In Baltimore and across America, bills coming due for long neglected problems | COMMENTARY

Workers remove debris from the gas explosion on Monday morning in the Reisterstown Station neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore.
Workers remove debris from the gas explosion on Monday morning in the Reisterstown Station neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Some days — and certainly more days than we want to admit — life in the United States seems fraught with more risks and worries than the people of a wealthy, advanced country ought to endure, and I’m not talking about the pandemic. I’m talking about problems that have been looming and ticking for a long time.

Who among some 680,000 Baltimore-area customers of BGE feels safer today after Monday morning’s deadly explosion on Labyrinth Road? Who doesn’t wonder, given the recent history of leaks, about the state of the pipes that bring gas into our homes and businesses?

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In this age of climate change, who listens to a weather forecast about an approaching storm without worrying that it will rise to an extreme level and cause more damage than such a storm might have inflicted just 10 years ago?

If your home or business is near an old water main in Baltimore, you probably worry about it busting and flooding your property.

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Given all the violence we have seen in recent years, who doesn’t worry even a little about being caught in a mass shooting in a public place?

And then there are daily threats that people face because of their skin color or religious affiliation, with hate crimes on the rise.

I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say, all conditions considered, that we are in a fraught place in the nation’s history.

Americans have always lived with risk. We risk our lives every time we drive a car or eat food and drink water we assume to be safe. But I’m not talking about the risk of accidents or the risks that rise from unhealthy personal habits. I’m talking about a feeling that we’re living among time bombs, problems that threaten the quality of life for all of us.

America is well past middle age and, if we’re honest, we have to acknowledge that we have big domestic problems, most of them exacerbated by neglect.

As if we needed evidence of the country’s backsliding, we have proof in the pandemic: The U.S. seemed most equipped, in terms of vigilance and brainpower, to successfully manage the threat to public health posed by a novel virus. But it has failed to do so, with more than 160,000 dead in six months. A government that just five years earlier managed to contain the Ebola threat blew an early opportunity to get ahead of the coronavirus by ignoring a playbook left by the Obama administration. Now the entire nation suffers because of it. What should have been an all-in, science-based fight against a disease devolved into a bitter, confusing and self-defeating political squabble.

But the country faces big problems beyond the immediate crisis; they were there before the coronavirus and they will be there after it. Some are social — violent crime, drug addiction, sharply rising income inequality — but many physical and solvable.

The American Society of Civil Engineers might be looking for work for its members, but it’s also looking out for the country when it estimates that we need to spend about $4.5 trillion by 2025 to deal with aging roads, bridges and dams.

In March, President Donald Trump tweeted the idea of spending about half that amount to stimulate economic recovery from the pandemic, and there has been talk for more than three years about a bipartisan deal in Congress on infrastructure investment. But it’s just a lot of talk and tweets. You can’t spend trillions on public works projects when you’re giving big tax breaks to corporations and millionaires and funding a defense budget approaching $740 billion annually.

No doubt, the bill is coming due. We are living with the consequences of growth and austerity — government investment that has not kept up with the needs of expanding populations, especially in urban areas. Look at Baltimore’s challenges with old pipes and wastewater. Look at the chronic problems with gas leaks and aging infrastructure.

When it comes to transportation, we continue to support motor vehicles over mass transit. One of Larry Hogan’s first acts as Maryland governor in 2015 was to kill the long-planned $2.9 billion Red Line light rail system through Baltimore. He turned down nearly $1 billion in federal funds for a project that would have put thousands to work and, in the long term, relieved traffic congestion and created opportunities for economic development.

The emphasis on cars and roads continues, as seen in the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board’s draft plan for spending over the next four years: Heavy on highways and very light on new transit.

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We continue on this path in the midst of climate change. Millions of us still drive millions of miles on fossil fuels and, with gasoline relatively cheap, we remain generally complacent about the damage we inflict on the planet. If there’s another gasoline crisis, maybe the country will panic and go electric on a transformative scale. Maybe then we’ll see big investment in mass transit, more people willing to use it and live closer to it. Maybe.

But it should not take a crisis. Avoiding crisis — bridges collapsing, dams bursting, gas lines exploding, power lines falling, coastal areas flooding, disease spreading, mass killers shooting — that’s what makes a country exceptional. It requires foresight, holistic planning and massive investment of tax dollars. It requires common sense for the common good, and progressive political leadership that gets us there before it’s too late. We have a long, long way to go.

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