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.
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
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
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
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