Why America NEEDS ‘Internal Improvements’

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On August 1, 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota suddenly collapsed during the evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. It could have been much worse, but it also could have been prevented. The bridge was Minnesota’s fifth busiest, and carried 140,000 vehicles daily. The NTSB cited a design flaw as the likely cause of the collapse, and asserted that additional weight on the bridge at the time of the collapse contributed to the catastrophic failure. America’s infrastructure is crumbling. Every minute we waste discussing the issue of repairing and improving our roads, waterways, rail lines, communications, and energy efficiency allows further degradation, decay, and tragedies.

The above tragedy will be repeated in the future if we do not begin improving our infrastructure. And it is not just the safety of the population that is on the line, it’s also our economic well-being. As the population grows, more and more traffic is being driven across bridges and highways that were never designed to carry the increased weight. It’s not just bridges that need attention, many airport runways need to be expanded as well. Airports are struggling to deal with the increasing demands of people who want to fly to destinations across the nation and abroad. Our highways are also in a state of disrepair. But it’s not just our transportation system that needs tender love and care. Water and sewage pipes are bursting, dams are breaking, and energy is being wasted which makes it more expensive and is increasingly in demand. Need some statistics? Here you go.

*According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 25 percent of America’s nearly 600,000 bridges need significant repairs or are burdened with more traffic than they were designed to carry.

*According to the Federal Highway Administration, approximately one-third of America’s major roadways are in substandard condition – a significant factor in one-third of the more than 43,000 traffic fatalities in the United States each year.

*The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that traffic jams caused by insufficient infrastructure waste 4 billion hours of commuters’ time and nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline a year.

*The Association of State Dam Safety Officials has found that the number of dams in the United States that could fail has grown 134% since 1999 to 3,346, and more than 1,300 of those are considered “high-hazard” – meaning that their collapse would threaten lives.

*More than one-third of all dam failures or near-failures since 1874 have happened in just the last decade.

*According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, aging sewer systems spill an estimated 1.26 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every single year, resulting in an estimated 50.6 billion dollars in cleanup costs.

These numbers should be enough to warrant federal spending on infrastructure, but Republicans in Congress are not interested in improving America. They are willing to spend hundreds-of-billions of dollars on defense contractors, but refuse to spend one dime on improving our transportation and communications systems.

In light of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the growing threat of nuclear meltdown, we must take a hard look at our own nuclear facilities to make them safer. Let me make this clear: I’m not calling for a complete end to nuclear energy, but we must improve our nuclear facilities so that they can stand up to major earthquakes and tsunamis. Natural disasters have broken our infrastructure before. In 2004, hurricane Katrina caused ocean surges that broke through the levies that were supposed to protect New Orleans. Most levies across America are substandard today and are in desperate need of attention. The same is true of our nuclear power plants. A major earthquake or tsunami could wipe out a nuclear facility and cause potential meltdowns that would blanket large swaths of the country in harmful radiation. We must not only make our nuclear facilities more earthquake-proof, but we need to invest in more and better earthquake and tsunami warning systems. Right now, even in the midst of the disaster in Japan, Republicans are proposing cuts to these warning systems. Such proposals are a threat to our safety. The better our infrastructure is, the safer we are, and our economy gets stronger too.

Throughout American history infrastructure, or “internal improvements” as it was called in early America, has been regarded as an important part of our success and is one reason why we are the number one economy in the world. It all goes back to the National Road. As part of the “internal improvements” effort, President Thomas Jefferson approved the construction of the road in 1806 and construction began in 1811. Between the beginning of construction and the end of the road, when funding dried up in 1839, 620 miles of the first road built by the United States government had been laid down between Cumberland, Maryland and Vandalia, Illinois and is now known as US Highway 40. The effects of the road were immediate as settlers ventured westward, using the road to guide the way; helping America stretch towards the Pacific Ocean. Over 100 years later, Dwight Eisenhower, impressed by the German Autobahn, signed into law the Federal Highway Act; and put people to work building an intricate and extensive network of highways and interstates across the nation that revolutionized transportation in America and helped spur a booming economy with new construction jobs that lasted for more than a generation. Republicans supported highways then, they should support repairing them now. But they don’t care if highways and bridges fall apart. The National Road wasn’t the only improvement; between 1817 and 1825, a canal was built in New York that completely transformed the economy of the state. The Erie Canal stretched 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo connecting to Lake Erie, and became a cheap and quick way to transport goods out west. Many communities sprang up along the canal, which also contributed to strengthening the economy.

The government then saw fit to improve transportation, once again, by laying the tracks of the Transcontinental Railroad. Between 1863 and 1869, rail lines were laid between Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California and a mechanized transcontinental transportation network was established that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West. Republicans SUPPORTED this, then. They should support the building of high-speed rail, now. The only reason they don’t is because they are beholden to the oil companies that want Americans to remain dependent on oil. China and Europe have high-speed rail and they use far less oil than we do. Millions of gallons of gasoline could be saved, and pressure taken off of America’s highway system and bridges. It would also create jobs for hundreds of thousands of Americans; it makes a lot of sense.

Perhaps one of the largest and most innovative transportation projects ever built was the Panama Canal. Built during the Teddy Roosevelt Administration, the canal cuts through the country of Panama and, although it was not an infrastructure project here in America, it did improve our security and economy by providing faster passage of ships from one side of the nation to the other. This was a major achievement undertaken by the Republicans. You would think they would understand the importance of infrastructure more than the Democrats, but apparently not.

Another one of the great infrastructure and energy projects in American history is the Hoover Dam. Built between 1931 and 1936, the Hoover Dam provides hydroelectric power and irrigation to Nevada, California, and Arizona and put thousands of unemployed people to work during the Great Depression. The dam generates 4.2 billion kWh and it was the Republicans that first introduced legislation to begin the project back in the 1920’s. Then FDR came along and used the project to put Americans to work. Still, the fact remains that the Republicans wanted the government involved in this project. Today we need energy, and oil isn’t cutting it anymore. We need different energy sources and investing in solar, wind, and cleaner electricity is the only way to get infinite energy that is far less expensive than oil. Oil will not last forever and it will only get more expensive as demand rises and the population increases. Right now, unrest in the Middle East is affecting prices here. We cannot allow that to continue. Plus, as oil runs out, oil companies will raise prices in order to squeeze every last dollar they can from American consumers.

But there is another reason besides the economy, energy conservation, and national defense to repair and improve our infrastructure. It will cost us billions more to NOT fix it, than it will to fix it. Once again, I offer statistics; the following are some facts from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a Republican ally:

*A decaying transportation system costs our economy more than $78 billion annually in lost time and fuel.

*The United States must invest $225 billion per year, over the next 50 years, to maintain and adequately enhance our surface transportation systems. Currently, we’re spending less than 40% of this amount.

*U.S. transit systems earned a D+ rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Transit funding is declining even as transit use increases faster than any other mode of transportation – up 21% between 1993 and 2002.

*Costs attributed to airline delays, due in large part to congestion and an antiquated air traffic control system, are expected to triple to $30 billion from 2000 to 2015.

*By 2020, every major U.S. container port is projected to be handling at least double the volume it was designed to handle.

*Throughout the United States, railroads are projected to need nearly $200 billion in investment over the next 20 years to accommodate freight increases.

The fact is, we spend more on bombs and sports stadiums than we do on our transportation system; and it is time to reverse that. You can bet that businesses both big and small support infrastructure spending. The business world has been ecstatic about President Obama’s call for infrastructure spending, but Republicans refuse to budge because of their hatred for the president. President Obama wants to build/repair 150,000 miles of roads, 4,000 miles of rail and 150 miles of airport runway. To accomplish this President Obama must push for the creation of another Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps, and resurrect other Depression-era programs that put people back to work. Improving America’s roads will improve our economy and if you want some proof of that, look no further than to the state of Missouri.

Following the passage of Amendment 3 in late 2004, the Missouri Department of Transportation began its Smoother, Safer, Sooner road-building program with a goal of bringing 2,200 miles of highways up to good condition by December 2007. This has led to not only an improved state economy, but also safer roads. Missouri’s Gross State Product increased between 2005-2009 from $216 billion to $240 billion. And from 2006–2008 traffic deaths have decreased annually from 1,257 in 2005, to 1,096 in 2006, to 974 for 2007, to 941 for 2008.

The final, most important, reason to make infrastructure investments is that they create jobs, millions of them. In order to overhaul our transportation, communication, and energy systems, we will have to have people do the work. And not just any people, the American people. By making these critical investments to rebuild and rejuvenate our crumbling infrastructure, we can put millions of Americans back to work and inject new life and growth back into our economy. At the same time we’ll be preventing tragedies like the bridge collapse in Minnesota, and protecting better against natural disasters. It would save us hundreds-of-billions of dollars in the long run too. We will also need to invest more in education so we have more people to lead the world in the communication, transportation, engineering, architecture, construction, and energy fields.

Up till the 1970s, the U.S. was definitely the country to be envied. But few Americans realize that post-war Europe has caught up and, in some ways, even surpasses the United States today. Some of our infrastructure would not look out-of-place in former Communist eastern Europe. Americans can only envy the state of highways, bridges and such in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France. We owe it to ourselves and our children to catch up to the rest of the world and overtake them in energy, education, transportation, and communication. It makes us a better, safer, and wealthier nation and demonstrates who we are to the rest of the world. If we want to continue to be respected among the other nations in the world, we must repair and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. Internal improvements should be something all Americans can agree on.

Edited By: Alexis Atherton