You could blame the general atmosphere of impotence and paralysis in Washington, or you could blame our elected officials’ lack of fiscal responsibility. Either way you look at it, poor leadership is responsible for the state of America’s so-bad-it’s-almost-funny infrastructure.

Potholes are one thing – they’re an effective wake-up call on anybody’s morning commute – but the bigger picture is even more worrying. Aside from our poorly maintained road and highway system, America is also home to out-of-date or literally obsolete airports and seaports. The bottom line is that America’s physical infrastructure is lacking across the board – sometimes dangerously so.

It’s estimated that around 70,000 bridges in America can be considered “structurally deficient.”

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Ray LaHood served as the 16th Secretary of Transportation during President Obama’s first administration and currently co-chairs Building America’s Future, the aim of which is to work with our elected officials to secure better funding for our infrastructure. In a recent piece for CBS News, LaHood stopped just short of declaring those 70,000 bridges “unsafe” for use, but did confirm that he felt they were “dangerous.” Frankly, that’s not a semantic line I want to draw when there are lives, quite literally, hanging in the balance.

If you’ve ever been to Pittsburg, you know that the city is home to a number of bridges, including the important Liberty Bridge. Andy Herrmann, who previously served as president for the American Society of Civil Engineers, has named the Liberty Bridge one of the most potentially problematic structures in the city. It was designed to last just 50 years, yet it’s now been standing for nearly 90. Couple that with the fact that cars weigh more than ever, and you have the recipe for a very serious public safety problem.

Pittsburg is bad enough, but consider this anecdote from Philly: an urgent maintenance issue with a bridge on I-95 was discovered quite by accident when, back in 2008, two DOT contractors happened to park their cars under the bridge in question after having decided to get a sausage sandwich for lunch. When they did, they discovered an 8-foot, 5-inch-wide “gash” in the bridge’s structure. If action hadn’t been taken swiftly, they say the bridge could have collapsed.

In other words: quite a few people are alive today only because of sheer, dumb luck. Not a pretty picture.

As a current resident of Pennsylvania, I can attest to the state of our ailing infrastructure. PennDOT is widely known to be a haven for corruption, so it’s no wonder we’re having trouble making progress on this issue. But the larger problem, naturally, is one of funding.

So what would it take to get traction on this issue? After all, Obama has consistently named national infrastructure as an area in dire need of overhaul and additional investment. So what’s it going to take?

It’s beyond bizarre that this issue has gone neglected in Washington for so long. 1993 was the last time we made a concentrated effort to improve our interstate system, for example, and it was made possible only by raising the gas tax. According to LaHood, the problem is a lack of “courage” among our elected officials: “Politicians in Washington don’t have the courage to say, ‘This is what we have to do.’”

As a result, we now spend less on infrastructure than we have at any other point since 1947, and we’ve fallen to 16th place worldwide in terms of the quality of our infrastructure. In addition to our safety, even our economic future is at risk; corporations like General Electric and Caterpillar have cited our crumbling infrastructure as part of their difficulties in competing abroad.

The list of problems goes on and on, as does the list of consequences if we don’t start making serious progress on this issue.

Of course, government inaction isn’t always about a lack of interest; in this case, it’s more about a lack of funding. The thing is, that’s nothing nothing new; the whole reason we elect lawmakers is because they’re ostensibly better than the rest of us at deciding how to spend our tax revenue. All this situation really drives home for us is the fact that our country has always been spectacularly bad at living within its means. Until we learn to spend our money where it’s needed most, America will continue its slow decline into mediocrity.

Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons)

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Holly Whitman

Holly Whitman is the author behind Only Slightly Biased, a freelance journalist and striving to be one of the best women political writers on the web. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Finance, Fortune, Politicus, Bust and Feministing. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman.

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