Infrastructure is too boring a word for a set of assets that go to the very core of a functioning civilization.
Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire conquered much of the known world partly because its leaders understood the absolute necessity of good roads, aqueducts for clean water, sewage disposal and all the other ingredients that make up infrastructure. Almost as much as military might, it was dedication to maintaining these essentials that kept Rome in power for centuries.
Much closer to our time, post-World War II construction of interstate highways bound our nation together, vastly expanding commerce and domestic travel. Other examples of important public investments could fill a book.
Infrastructure has been in the national news of late. Even all who question the basic competence of the president and Congress find it worth hoping that sheer political expediency and the time-tested desire to sprinkle borrowed money on local projects might prevail over all the tiresome quarreling. No such luck, so far. Wouldn’t it be great if more politicians believed in investing in America instead of squandering our treasure on endless foreign wars?
In this age of paralyzed national government, we sometimes have to find other ways to keep at least some infrastructure from crumbling. Subnational entities — the states, counties, cities and even private citizens — can do the important job of identifying the most important priorities and focusing public pressure on federal agencies and appropriators.
Here in our area, there are good examples of what federal funding can achieve, and also of the strengths and weaknesses of state funding.
The Columbia River jetty system, now in the midst of a thorough multiyear renovation, is the kind of mammoth project only a federal government could build and maintain. It benefits from being hugely beneficial to a broad set of political and economic interests, making it possible to win support from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Similarly, Astoria Bridge renovations have largely happened thanks to the 2008 Great Recession stimulus package requested by President George W. Bush and approved by a strong bipartisan majority in Congress.
Less visible and less vital to interstate transportation, smaller projects in our area in recent years have included the John Day River Bridge east of Astoria and a whole set of U.S. Highway 101 bridges in Pacific County, among others. It doesn’t take much time spent in less-developed countries to recognize how lucky we are to benefit in these public investments. Russia is particularly notorious for woefully neglecting vast areas beyond its capital and other major urban centers.
And yet it’s easy to find headlines and real-world examples of infrastructure neglect right here in the USA. Our Capital Bureau reported May 16 that engineers say Oregon’s infrastructure is falling apart, and that the risks are heightened by the threat of earthquakes. In January, the state got a “C-” for infrastructure upkeep by grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. The ASCE gave Washington state only a slightly better “C” grade. Both rate better than the nation as a whole. (It’s worth noting that civil engineers have a financial interest in generating more spending on public projects.)
When it comes to highway quality, it isn’t uncommon for Washington residents to joke that crossing into Oregon is akin to traveling by road from the U.S. into Mexico. This comparison is especially obvious between Vancouver and Portland, where traffic moves at a slug’s pace on Oregon’s under-built share of Interstate 5 and speeds like a jackrabbit in Washington. However, the ASCE gives Oregon roads a “C+” and Washington’s a “C-” due to chronic congestion in the Seattle area.
Local highways and streets are another matter. On the Washington side, in Pacific County, U.S. Highway 101 has a nearly continuous narrow pothole running through Seaview, while some streets in both Clatsop and Pacific counties are embarrassingly poor.
Perhaps of greatest concern is the massive amount of work required to better prepare both states for an inevitable Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. Here on the coast, seismic retrofitting and relocation of infrastructure has the potential of saving many lives. It would take decades for such work to accrue a substantial benefit — but we may have time, if we get busy. In the same vein, rising sea level will require some massively expensive adjustments, some of which may be easier if started sooner.
On a less-glamorous level, both states need to improve wastewater management, and do so in ways that aren’t so financially punishing to the residents of small cities and towns, which have seen spiraling public utility bills in recent years.
All this may strike some as amounting to call for more taxes on the state and federal levels to pay for investment and upkeep of public assets. This wouldn’t necessarily be the case, if we ratchet back out-of-control defense spending and make other choices to prioritize domestic needs. In other cases, it can be argued that citizens and businesses alike that benefit from infrastructure like highways probably ought to contribute more to maintaining them.
Rome failed for many reasons, but a significant one was overextending itself and letting things like roads and bridge go to pot. If the U.S. isn’t willing to invest more on ourselves, we will have to adjust to a future in which infrastructure in less-smart, less politically powerful and less affluent places becomes obsolete. (Sadly, the modern city of Rome is a perfect example of a massive failure in urban maintenance.)