The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released a report card for American Infrastructure again this past year and gave it a D+. When compared with other modern nations, and with our own development from years past, the state of U.S. infrastructure was one grade above failing.
Keep in mind that another report, released in 2013, stirred up significant controversy with its D+ assessment. Things have not improved since that initial stun, and the fanfare present in the last report was absent from the 2017 version.
Let’s set the stage for today.
There may be a much more severe problem underlying US infrastructure problems. Partisan politics have facilitated the rise of opposition parties in their purest form — the ability to win an election through blatant attacks and without ingenuity or the contribution of new ideas. We are experiencing a chasm within our two-party system the likes of which we have never seen before. Issues that lawmakers could formerly cooperate on have now become partisan.
A few decades ago, infrastructure reform could have been a rare and auspicious agreement-point for the Republican and Democratic parties. Senators and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle might have been able to sit down and hammer out the details in a package that would benefit at least the majority of America. Anybody with a vehicle — anyone who crosses a street or bridge — would see their lives improve, if only marginally, and the bipartisan teamwork could benefit the politicians responsible.
This doesn’t seem to be possible today.
The rhetoric of today discards cooperative politicians and embraces war paint and battle cries. The only politicians who dare to reach across the aisle — John McCain, for example — served when such behavior was encouraged and have made their careers from it. They are also on the way out. With the stage for the 2018 midterms set, the rift seems likely to grow even wider as several of the incumbents willing to work with the opposite party have decided to step down.
We have also seen that the government is willing to shut itself down as a sort of bizarre bargaining chip.
Amongst the many roles our current president has forsaken is that of the de facto spearhead of the congressional agenda. President Trump has taken a backseat on most congressional issues, occasionally tweeting vague directives or calling for ambiguous large-scale projects. It is likely we will have built a slab of concrete along our southern border before rebuilding our bridges, and the great wall is still a practical impossibility.
The current topic of fixation is tax reform. A few months ago, it was health care. A few months from now it will probably be another topic but almost certainly will not include infrastructure reform. Building bridges and roads is neither flashy nor politically disputed, so it will almost certainly get ignored. Again, this is a product of the current political arena, and the fact that Trump would prefer to play to the media circus instead of actually doing the things that need to be done.
U.S. infrastructure reform is a problem which will require a tremendous amount of maturity and clarity on both sides of the aisle. Both of these elements are lacking on the Senate and Congress floors today. Politicians are willing to talk and point fingers but do little else.
Going down the ASCE checklist, there are a few causes for hope. Our rail system, for example, has garnered a respectable B. Though hardly revolutionized, our freight shipping capabilities appear to be holding their own. Likewise, our ports are rated at a C+ level, as are the bridges.
Decent scores for shipping has the unfortunate side-effect of masking the less-conspicuous infrastructure failings. The economy is forever at the front of politicians’ and voters’ minds, and anything that threatens that will take top priority. As long as the rails and ports are still functioning, lower-rated sections like parks and transit — D+ and D- respectively — will continue to fly under the radar.
As a side note, Hazardous Waste Disposal has been given a D+ as well. Drinking Water earns a D (are we really surprised?), as do Aviation and Dams. All of these are integral to the health of our people and the vitality of our country.
The Path Forward
Bi-partisan cooperation feels like a pipe dream. However, before any mutual work can begin to take shape, infrastructure reform needs to be put on the docket. Leadership in the Senate, House and from the president influences this possibility. Additionally, the Democratic Party must understand the chance for a bipartisan victory is rare when you are the minority in the House, Senate and executive branch.
There are certainly other current issues besides our infrastructure problems that are worthwhile as well. The point is, we tend to get so caught up in our partisan agenda that we fail to see what’s immediately and fundamentally critical to the public’s health and well-being. For example, why is the Trump administration concerned with rolling back LGBT rights that are already in place and aren’t legitimately bothering anyone? It’s an egregious waste of time.
It’s simply another example of how politicians consistently pander to the extremist factor of their party to gain support. This practice needs to take a backseat to looking at the issues that really matter to the American public’s safety, well-being and happiness. U.S. infrastructure holds the rare place of being in both parties’ best interests. It both intimately ties to the economy and the social well-being of the citizens. Somehow in this age-old divide, differences must be cast aside so we can at least adequately dispose of our hazardous waste. We are better than this.
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