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Making choices: trillions for wars while vital infrastructure crumbles

“The time has come to make a difficult decision. Charity begins at home. We can no longer afford to rebuild Afghanistan and America. We must choose. And I choose America.” — Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

One has only to travel on most any major highway, hear reports of a declining waterways system, read news reports of public facilities falling apart or being closed for lack of staffing or maintenance, to empathize with the senator’s recent statement regarding this nation’s budget-busting, seemingly eternal Mideast wars.

With some analysts projecting that the real and hidden costs of Iraq could total $3 trillion or more, and $2 billion per week being sucked up to pay for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the public more and more wonders if returns will ever justify the costs. And increasingly, they say, those billions could be better spent at home.

In the decade-plus that these expensive military actions have been going on, the nation’s infrastructure has been on a downward spiral of deterioration, on the heels of 20 years previous when Congress “conspicuously underfunded” infrastructure projects.

“Operating beyond their planned life cycles, these roads, bridges, water lines, sewage treatment plants, and dams” have been caught up in “partisan debate over the tax burdens and how to cut exploding national debt,” says a recent report by the Urban Land Institute, which notes that the U.S. is falling drastically behind much of the world in construction and maintenance of the transportation network needed for its agriculture and commerce to compete in the global marketplace.

The study echoes ongoing findings of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which in its last report card on U.S. infrastructure in 2009 issued a grade of “D”. The ASCE estimated that a $2.2 trillion five-year investment would be needed over five years — which, needless to say, has not happened.

For Mid-South states, that same ASCE report card showed 40 percent of Mississippi’s major roads in poor or mediocre condition, with 25 percent of bridges structurally deficient or functionally obsolete; in Louisiana, the figures were 44 percent and 30 percent; in Tennessee, 17 percent and 21 percent; in Arkansas, 32 percent and 25 percent; in Missouri, 34 percent and 33 percent.

Nationally, more than 4,000 dams were ranked deficient, including 1,819 high hazard dams. Of the more than 85,000 dams in the U.S., the average age was 51 years. The nation’s 100,000-plus miles of levees were graded “D-minus.”  Corps of Engineers funding for work on the vital Mississippi River system has seen major cuts.

The ULI analysis, conducted by Ernst & Young, notes that Congress’ reluctance to commit to funding for infrastructure will drop more of the burden on the doorsteps of states and cities, which are facing declining revenues from all sources.

Most local officials will “find it more politically palatable to reduce infrastructure budgets than to call for tax hikes” to fund needed improvements, the report says.

TAGS: Legislative
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