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America Is Falling Apart

by Jeff Kosseff, The Oregonian
Sunday June 29, 2008, 12:44 PM
Published Sunday, June 29

Growing backlog of repairs to roads, sewers and other basics threatens economy, livability America is falling apart.
Literally.

From highways to bridges to plumbing to telecommunications, we are not keeping up with our national maintenance chores.

Our highways are crumbling. Just maintaining them as they are would cost up to 40 cents a gallon more in gas taxes over the next five years.

And that would do nothing to meet the increased demand; highway travel and hours stuck in traffic have both grown by about 25 percent in the past 10 years.

Remember that bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis last summer? More than one-quarter of U.S. bridges -- including one-quarter of Oregon's -- are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

We need to spend $250 billion to fix our aging water pipes. And our telecommunications system is far slower than the rest of the world's lightning-fast broadband.

"We're basically sliding toward Third World status," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "It's pathetic."

Olivia Bucks/The OregonianWater and sewer: A city of Portland truck falls into a sinkhole in Southeast Portland in December 2006 after pipes under the street collapsed. Water and sewer systems nationwide are old and deteriorating.

The aging infrastructure is more than a headache that strands us in traffic and slows our e-mail. It poses a huge threat to our economy.
Our overseas competitors are making huge investments. China is building a 53,000-mile national highway system, along with light rail and other mass transit. Sure, China is playing catch-up. But the United States lags Taiwan, Japan, and 17 other countries in broadband deployment.

Just as relatively low wages in other countries pushed U.S. jobs overseas, so, too, could our deteriorating infrastructure.

Oregon's congressional delegation is in a position to make a difference. DeFazio chairs the House subcommittee on highways and transit. He'll play a key role in drafting a road and transit funding bill next year. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is pushing for the government to issue billions of dollars in bonds to pay for highway improvements. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., is pushing for a national transportation plan.

Blumenauer responded to DeFazio's comparison of the United States to Third World countries with a minor correction:
"You're doing a disservice to some Third World countries," Blumenauer said. "We're losing this battle. We're investing less in infrastructure than at any time in our history."

Water and sewer

WASHINGTON -- The water flowing out of your faucet has become a multibillion-dollar problem for the United States.

The water pipes running underground are decades old. Some date to the 19th century. Some are wooden.

The aging water system has led to increasing reports of burst pipes and contamination. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the nation must invest $202.5 billion in the next 20 years to upgrade wastewater treatment and collection, sewage and storm water management systems. That's on top of $276.8 billion that the EPA estimates is needed to upgrade drinking water systems.

"We're underground, so nobody ever thinks about us," said Kylah Hedding, public affairs manager for the American Water Works Association, which represents drinking water utilities. Utilities fix leaks in the decades-old water system, but that's not a permanent solution, Hedding said.

"When you own a car," she said, "you make repairs on your car for so long before you have to buy a new car."

The American Water Works Association is not asking for increased federal spending. Instead, it wants the federal government to increase its loans to local governments for upgrading their systems.

The association representing wastewater utilities, however, says there is a federal role. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies is pushing a federal trust fund of $10 billion a year. Susie Bruninga, a spokeswoman for the group, said local governments now contribute about 95 percent of costs, and a large part of that is to meet federal regulations.

"We're not saying the federal government should do it all," Bruninga said. "But we think that with increasing federal mandates, the federal government has a role, and it has to be more than the 3 to 5 percent that the federal government spends today."

Those mandates are forcing communities to spend huge sums to get into compliance with clean water regulations. Portland officials estimate that it will cost the city -- and water users -- between $100 million and $350 million to treat Portland's drinking water to meet the requirements of the Safe Water Drinking Act.

The expensive requirements also hit hard in small communities such as Sweet Home, which had to build a new treatment plant.

"We keep sending these mandates down to local communities," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "So they have to build a very expensive new facility in a former mill town that doesn't have a lot of money."

 
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