Editorial: Waiting to fix infrastructure is dangerous

Published 10:07 am Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The continuing deterioration of America’s infrastructure was symbolized last week by the near failure of the nation’s tallest dam. Some 188,000 people were ordered to evacuate downstream from the Oroville Dam on the Feather River in northern California, a vital linchpin in that state’s water supply system.

The evacuation order was lifted later in the week, but authorities warned even as residents were allowed to return that the crisis was not over.

The problems with the spillways at Oroville were no secret. Environmental groups have been warning state and federal officials for more than a decade of the risk involved. But the short-term savings of doing nothing always prevailed.

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In a separate but hardly unrelated news item, an annual report last week said that more than 55,000 bridges in the U.S. are structurally deficient. The Federal Highway Administration put the price tag at $20.5 billion. Annually. For 16 years. That multiplies out to $328 billion, which is a scary sum to contemplate.

Bridges, dams, highways, the electrical grid, water mains and sewage lines — the muscle and sinew of the economy — are all deteriorating or being overwhelmed by demand faster than we are willing to upgrade and maintain them.

We’ve said this repeatedly about Minnesota’s highways specifically, but it is true on infrastructure in general: Delay is costly in the long run.

And it is potentially deadly. Authorities in California last week feared the genuine possibility of a 30-foot wall of water washing away communities downstream. Minnesotans learned in 2007 with the collapse of the I-35W bridge the risk of deficient bridges.

President Trump, to his credit, has spoken repeatedly about the problem. His proposed solution — to sic America’s investor class on the problem — is probably not practical. Investors want profit, and profit on highways and bridges requires more traffic than is available outside of the nation’s major metropolitan areas. Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post that of that state’s 4,500 deficient bridges, “my guess is that no more than 10 can be tolled.”

Opposition to tax increases is all but mandatory among Republicans on both the state and federal levels. But the infrastructure needs are real, they are growing, and they are not going to be resolved without additional revenue. Neglect only appears to be the less expensive course.

— Mankato Free Press, Feb. 23

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