Why New Infrastructure Is a National Imperative

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Yves here. Notice that what Tom Conway calls “infrastructure” is  “deferred maintenance,” hence the urgency.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

Rich Carmona spent decades upgrading his 1970s ranch home in Midland, Michigan.

He lovingly installed new flooring and doors and remodeled the bathrooms. After finishing the kitchen 18 months ago, he finally had the house the way he liked it.

Then the 96-year-old Edenville Dam failed amid heavy rains May 19, unleashing a torrent of water that drowned roads, swept some houses off of their foundations and left others, including Carmona’s, in ruins.

If America maintained its infrastructure with the same care Carmona did his home, this never would have happened.

However, U.S. leaders long failed to invest in the nation’s roads, bridges and dams, turning them into crumbling hazards that put Americans’ lives and dreams at risk.

Four years ago, Donald Trump pledged a $1 trillion national infrastructure program. But he failed to deliver any rebuilding campaign at all. Americans still drive over decrepit bridges and raise their families in the shadows of aging dams.

Now, as the country struggles to rebound economically from the COVID-19 pandemic, an infrastructure campaign is more essential than ever.

Rebuilding the nation’s transportation and energy systems would provide work for millions of Americans who lost jobs—or risk losing them—because of the economic slump triggered by the coronavirus.

Upgraded roads, bridges and waterways would facilitate an expansion of commerce for years to come. And a major infrastructure push will protect the lives and investments of Americans who are tired of being placed in harm’s way.

“What is it going to take?” asked Carmona, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12075 and a logistics operator at Dow Chemical in Midland. “How much devastation? How much loss of life?”

Thousands of residents fled when the Edenville Dam burst, triggering a flood that overtopped a second dam and inundated Midland and other communities.

When Carmona returned a day and a half later, he found his home of about 25 years half submerged. His son had to paddle to the front door in a kayak.

Carmona, his wife, Debi, and their neighbors spent days talking with insurance adjustors, scheduling appointments with disaster restoration contractors and hauling damaged items out of their homes.

Mountains of debris—bedding, hot water tanks, washers, dryers and furniture—litter the once-pretty neighborhood.

“There are times you just want to cry. And I have. I feel worse for the people who lost everything. At least we have a home to come back to, where some people don’t,” he said.

For years, the failure of the Edenville Dam was a disaster waiting to happen.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked the owner’s power generating permit in 2018. Among other problems, the agency cited longstanding safety issues, including concerns about spillway capacity and the dam’s ability to prevent flooding.

“It was known that it was in bad shape and needed to be repaired,” Carmona said.

Fortunately, no one died in that flooding.

Over the past four decades, however, at least 34 people lost their lives in hundreds of dam collapses across the country.

Right now, thousands more dams are at risk because of age, neglect and capacity constraints compounded by climate change and runoff from new developments.

The cost of repairing them runs tens of billions of dollars. Until they’re upgraded, many communities will face the same threat as Midland.

The nation’s roads, bridges, harbors, electrical lines, airports and water systems also are in deplorable shape. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure an abysmal “D+” rating.

Americans make 188 million trips across thousands of deteriorating bridges each day. Breaks in aging pipes waste more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water every year. The nation depends on electrical lines quickly reaching the end of their life expectancy, bringing the possibility of more frequent power outages.

Infrastructure failures threaten lives and property. They also disrupt the operation of entire cities and stanch the flow of commerce.

In Washington state, for example, the emergency closure of the West Seattle Bridge two months ago forced tens of thousands of drivers and transit riders to find alternate routes around the city. The span will be closed at least until 2022 because of cracking that was first noticed seven years ago and recently grew much worse.

Now, businesses must scramble to survive without an essential link to the rest of the city. Residents worry about declining property values. Emergency vehicles must find new, potentially longer, routes into some neighborhoods.

Americans are fed up with broken-down roads and bridges—and with politicians who refuse to take decisive action no matter how many disasters occur.

“Just get it done,” said Kent Holsing, president of Local 12075, who helped friends haul ruined items out of their flooded houses. “Who will step up—when will we step up—to truly address this crisis?”

A long-term infrastructure program is now a national imperative, essential to protect Americans from failing bridges and dams, ensure the steady flow of commerce and jump-start an economy hobbled by COVID-19.

“Buy American” provisions will be crucial to the program’s success.

Federal, state and local governments must rebuild roads, bridges and other assets with American labor and U.S.-made materials. That will ensure the highest-caliber craftsmanship while expanding the nation’s manufacturing capacity and putting Americans to work.

In 2017, researchers at Georgetown University calculated that a $1 trillion infrastructure program would create more than 11 million jobs over 10 years.

Many of those jobs would be in the building trades, material handling, transportation and other fields directly related to construction. But others would be in steel, aluminum and other industries along the supply chain.

Still more positions would be created in fields like architecture and engineering and in the training programs needed to prepare workers for infrastructure jobs.

And many of these would be family-sustaining, middle-class jobs, the kind the country lost by the millions in recent years as manufacturing declined. Now, America needs these jobs to move forward in the post-COVID-19 world.

In Midland, neighbors and friends are pitching in to help the flood victims.

Carmona appreciates the support. But what he’d really like is to spare others the devastation that will take him months, maybe years, to overcome.

“Unless you see it or experience it, you can’t understand it,” he said. “It’s unreal.”

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  1. efschumacher

    One hopes the infrastructure rebuilding is aimed at tomorrow’s America, not just yesterday’s. Agreed that bridge and dam repairs, are critical anyway.

    1. Infinite Onion

      Exactly. The only benefit to the fact that we’ve failed to maintain or upgrade anything for decades is that we still have the opportunity to do so in a way that prepares for the future, rather than clinging to the past. How many of these dams should be maintained or replaced? How much of this private-car-centric infrastructure? Of course, obviously the leaded pipes should get lost, though.

      Do this right, and it’s the bridge to a better tomorrow. Do it wrong, and you’ve got tons of resources sunk into things you either no longer need or whose sunk costs are used to justify continuing to put off meaningful change. But this talk of expanding commerce? Yeah, no thanks. Degrowth with as gentle a glide-path as morally (and feasibly) possible.

      Some might argue this is a useful endeavor for some kind of Jobs Guarantee corps. And perhaps they are correct. However, first we’d be better off nationalizing the large construction contractors and all of their equipment and then see how many more bodies we actually need to get trained to get things done while reducing individual working hours across the entire sector (and the rest of the economy).

      1. d

        not sure there is morally possible path to degrowth, without mass death for many. the only to do it at all, is to do massive reduction of population aka large numbers of people die

    2. Bsoder

      Trillion dollars of rebuilding isn’t going to get you far. I’d be real careful on what it was spent on, with regard to climate heating and because of it. And were are all theses trained workers going to come from? Construction is not about digging holes with a shovel. And to do an average size bridge takes about 10 people with the right equipment. Not a million people. Concrete a problem extreme energy use. And you really do need a civil engineer and we have, what 5 in the country. The idea sounds great, and things need to be done, but not to return to normal but return to what climate heating requires, the -Long Emergency ҉

  2. jackiebass

    For decades under both democrat and republican administrations our infrastructure has been ignored. The deficit hawks have controlled the message in Washington that we can’t afford to spend on our infrastructure. This is a bogus argument. Actually we can’t afford to not spend on this. It could be compared to not changing the oil in your car to save a few bucks. Eventually it will cost you more than a few bucks. That is exactly what has happened to our infrastructure. With the economy in such bad shape I have a glimmer of hope we can address this problem. Quit pouring money down the drain on our military and use the money to repair our country.

  3. Ignacio

    “Residents worry about declining property values”

    I couldn’t access the embedded link (probably because on EU restrictions or whatever). Anyway this somehow reflects obsession with the value of things and property. The US was once an example on infrastructure development but this article paints a grim picture. America first, said Trump…

      1. Ignacio

        Thank you Rev I guess now that this obsession has to do with the possibility that residents don’t stay for long and moving frequently raises concerns on the value of the home. Isn’t it?

  4. rob

    not doing what needs to be done…. is as perennial as the grass.
    The “thing” to do for my entire life has been to “pretend” that things are being done. There has been building and repairing going on everywhere; sure…
    But in these past 5 decades , trillions have been wasted//// doing what?
    wall street swindles/rigging markets/banks creating money out of thin air…
    illegal international “spycraft/corporate espionage/starting wars under false pretenses/making the world safe for corporate plunder/the military industrial complex/captured political parties
    abusing the bill of rights/ police state infrastructure/technology to invade privacy/domestic spying and psy=ops against US…disinformation… propaganda/the academic industrial complex/the media industrial complex/
    All to keep us little hamsters on our wheels making the economy go round…. All being told we must keep up appearances…. and so we let the little things go.
    Like demanding that “the government” of “we the people”… has a shred of competence.
    To keep the infrastructure of our lives….serviceable.
    To demand “we the people” create our own money…. without debt…. for use in a transparent way..
    On things that we need.

    Sure things are in the crapper now… but they don’t have to stay that way.

  5. Bob

    We know how to loot companies, we know how to bribe congress, we know how to create financial engineering from thin air, we know how to loot whole countries
    And we used to know how to build stuff.
    But not any more.

    Be very careful with dams especially those used for power generation. Electric utilities HATE these since they have a very low cost of generation and since electric generation companies are cost plus operations. The electric companies often have a ulterior motive when it comes to dams and hydroelectric generation

    Note that FERC is often used to inhibit generation facilities not owned by the electric utilities.

  6. carl

    Yeah well, people have been calling for this for decades, and as others above noted, there’s just no political will to do any of it. So maybe the writer is hopeful that since everybody’s out of work, we could just slide into employing all these folks to rebuild the US? I give that about as much chance of happening as me flapping my wings and flying up to heaven, or the US suddenly deciding that universal healthcare is the way to go. Sorry if this sound cynical, but to me, pieces like this are just mental masturbation.

  7. Tyronius

    TRILLIONS for the largest corporations and banks at the drop of a hat, but can’t keep up with needed infrastructure maintenance, let alone upgrades.

    America is a failed State.

  8. The Rev Kev

    If I had to pick a date when America had serious problems financing infrastructure, I would go back to 1978 when California passed Proposition 13 which helped set off a tax payer revolt. By the 90s you had Silicon Valley decrying at parties paying any taxes in spite of driving on public roads and using public water supplies and being protected by public police and fire departments. And now, some of America’s largest corporations pay no taxes and billionaires hide their wealth overseas. In an ideological attempt to shrink the government small enough to be drown in a bath tub, State and local revenue has shrunk forcing those administrators to cut back on services, infrastructure and maintenance.

    What infrastructure there is is being privatized which usually means higher prices for the public, less services and quality, and severely cut back maintenance in order to fund sky high pay packets for management & shareholders. Matt Taibbi talked about this in his 2010 book “Griftopia.” I think back on James A. Micheners’s advice on what to do about funding infrastructure. He said that he would pay workers big wages – and would then tax them like hell to pay for roads and hospitals. Sorta like the Scandinavian method. But I am not sure how you would do any large projects in the US. Apart from the fact that the back-end industrial companies may no longer exist to tackle them, Wall Street would step in so big corporations got the projects who would outsource the work to another corporation who would do the same until the work is half-done by a Dodgy Brothers company just like happened with the spent billions in Iraq.

    Probably best to start with a lot of small local projects financed by the Feds as local authorities would know what work needs to be done, where and with what priority. But you would have to make sure that government inspectors went out to make sure that the work was actually being done on budget and on spec with penalties for non-compliance. And no “bridges to nowhere” being funded either.


    1. Expat2uruguay

      About those government inspectors. I used to be one , it was part of a rotation assignment so I was only there for a year, but I was a construction inspector on the San francisco-oakland Bay Bridge (SFOBB) Project. While I was there I noticed that water was seeping into the ungrouted tubes that held the prestressing strands. I wrote it up in my daily reports. I made long-form reports about it. I spoke up about it in internal meetings at Caltrans. I was completely ignored. After I left they discovered what a big problem it was, and gave $800,000 do a consultant to produce a report saying that it wasn’t really that big of a deal and everything would be okay.

      Eventually the newspapers discovered the problem and found those old daily reports of mine documenting the problem. It would have been a bigger ccandal, but the SFOBB had already had multiple scandals, so ho-hum.


      In the story they kind of mock me for applying duct tape, but hey it was the best I could do and it would work for keeping the water from entering the prestressing ducts, if they hadn’t already been severed. What what happened was that as the large equipment drove back and forth across the newly cast bridge deck it tended to sever the tubes that were sticking out of the concrete deck for use later when the prestressing tubes would be grouted. The contractor had little screw-in plugs they could use to block water entering the tubes, but they just didn’t do it. I would get the little plugs from them and go around and stick them in, and then write up all the other locations that needed to be done and submit it to the contractor and to my bosses at Caltrans. Nobody cared. Really, nobody cared.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      The US infrastructure badly needs repair. There are large numbers of unemployed construction workers.

      But I believe you’ve identified another problem that needs to be addressed before US infrastructure projects can be declared shovel-ready. A lot of money can go into a project but little work comes out — at least that’s how it seems to me. I suspect there might be a few leaks in the flow of money from public coffers into the physical repairs we need.

  9. chuck roast

    Pardon me for being a prick, but we are all required to do due diligence on our living arrangements. The guy should not have bought a house here. Better the writer opened up the article with a story of some poor schmoe who unwittingly died in bridge collapse.

    I live in seaside community that is periodically swept by fierce hurricanes. A 1954 storm left fish boats sitting at the 30′ contour line. Imagine what happened to homes and businesses along the shoreline. In the interests of not having a schooner sitting in my living room some August afternoon, I reside at the 58′ contour line. That doesn’t mean that my roof won’t blow off or a beech tree won’t collapse my house, but this is America where you are on your own, and ya’ gotta try to minimize known unknowns.

      1. juno mas

        And more than 25 years ago federal flood insurance was made available. This, of course, encouraged/mitigated the impacts of living in the floodplain. With climate change, no dam is “safe”. Rare hydrologic events (rainstorms) are becoming regular events and what occurred in Michigan could have over-topped an even more modern dam.

        The natural control for river flooding is the floodplain. Keep expensive buildings out of it. The natural floodplain is best used for wildlife, linear parks, low-intensity agriculture (no pesticides) and the like.

        1. chuck roast

          High flood danger insurance was made available by Congress in the early 1970’s. John Chaffee (R) R.I. was a primary sponsor of the legislation. How do I know this? Because I was a town planning intern responsible for drawing the high flood danger contour lines on the town zoning map. Coincidentally, John Chaffee had a summer “cottage” just over the primary dune and the No.1 victim of the next hurricane. Anyway, the ostensible purpose of the new zoning was to protect people already in the flood danger area. The actual result was to precipitate a feverous land rush of people to build along the beach thanks to the new effectively subsidized insurance.

  10. Knot Galt

    For those dams that do not comply or are at-risk, the reservoirs should be bled dry. Restore the center flow of the river back to it’s original course. This will achieve several factors being:

    The risk is mitigated and potential harm through poor investment/ improper oversight is diminished.
    The existing infrastructure can be readied for repairs when funding or investment becomes available.

    Persons who make their livelihood on the reservoir would be deeply, even tragically, affected. However, these persons are extrapolating a resource while denying the risks that are forced onto others. [Forcing accountability & social responsibility, instead, is going to be difficult because our current politics shift these things to the lower socio-economic groups.

    The scaring affect of the former lake bed would become an eyesore and become much more visible to the community that would encourage fighting to improve the “environment”. With the landscape so visibly altered, the politics of infrastructure will be brought forward.

    Finally, require dam owners to get insurance. (Practically everyone who has a car is required by law to some insurance so there is precedent to do so.) The cost of “doing nothing” then becomes too great a risk to allow these resources to be abused and neglected or forced to go fallow.

  11. Susan the other

    The Century Plan. And built to last. Physically and logically. Think of all the good spinoffs. We change our lifestyles to a more local economy; drive around less; preserve the environment locally and everywhere; have community gardens; do local waste management and recycling… Cleaner and healthier; self-sufficiencies, local response teams, etc – And right off the bat the first chapter of the plan should define our new social contract and the obligation of government to the people – complete with appropriate punishment for dereliction of duty to keep the peace and maintain the well-being of us all. Ask not what you can do for your country – ask what your country can do for you.

  12. m sam

    The reason dams and bridges do not get repaired is because it is clear to investors there is no way to make a profit on fixing infrastructure. And instead of just taxing the wealth and taking care of what needs to be done, our governments (both Republican and Democrat) just shovel more money into the pockets of the rich and wait along with them until the right price signals which way their wealth should go. In the mean time society crumbles: bridges and dams fail, pandemics ravage our cities, and the answer is always the same. Just shovel more money into the pockets of the rich and wait for the right price signals. The system does not fix problems, it just makes money on something else and hopes for the best.

  13. dk

    Hey guess what, Joe’s got a plan. It’s extensive, and my cursory review suggests it’s not *as* entirely built around tax credits and private “initiatives” as the abominable Clinton policy pages.

    The link to click past the obligatory solicitation for donation is in the upper right corner.

    According to the Wayback machine, the text is unchanged since mid November 2019, about seven months into his campaign, again different from the volatility of the Clinton pages (the changes seem to be of the fundraising popup). Maybe the latest round of onboarded policy mavens hasn’t found it yet? It’s pre-COVID, so some adjustment may be in order.

    I’m not a Biden fan, and I’m not qualified to analyze this. If nobody holds him to this it’s as good as non-existent.

    1. neo-realist

      If Biden wins, but the GOP holds the senate majority, it will definitely be as good as non-existent.

  14. Tom

    America’s voting patterns don’t necessarily reflect her desire for infrastructure repair so I’m not sure what’s the point of this article.

  15. Ashburn

    Reading through these comments I’m surprised no one has mentioned our disastrously overinflated military budget. Had just a quarter of the trillion$ we’ve spent on failing wars for the last two decades been spent on maintaining our infrastructure we could have easily financed the necessary maintenance.

    I’ve been reading recently how many of our most expensive weapon systems, e.g. aircraft carriers, are already obsolete due to Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles. And keep in mind it not just the cost of the carriers but all the various escort ships necessary to protect these behemoths: cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, including all the ongoing maintenance, fuel, port infrastructure, and crews to keep our vaunted military equipped to intimidate our friends and foes worldwide.

    What a waste. Yet no prominent politician from either party dares suggest we cut our “defense” budget.

  16. Knute Rife

    But he failed to deliver any rebuilding campaign at all.

    I think he meant “never bothered to propose anything at all.”

  17. Another Amateur Economist

    Most of the current US infrastructure is predicated on cheap energy from fossil fuels. Energy is becoming less cheap, and already US consumption is being subsidized to hold down prices for consumers. This is one of the reasons the US economy is not very competitive with the world, and also one of the reasons why our society is being torn apart by accelerating inequality.

    So most of this infrastructure is unsustainable, a sunk cost which will largely have to be written off, and allowed to decay and/or be cannibalized for parts.

    And so counter to intuition, our corporate masters’ greed and shortsightedness in neglecting US infrastructure is presently, in this small way, acting to the benefit of our nation’s long term interests.

    Too bad this savings is being spent on yachts and other high cost and high maintenance toys. While our wealthy masters can afford them, our economy cannot.

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