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Archive for Saturday, August 18, 2007

Infrastructure bank would boost renewal

August 18, 2007

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For those who lost their lives or their loved ones when Minneapolis' Interstate 35W bridge buckled and broke, it was an irreversible tragedy.

But that a collapse like this was coming, to some bridge, somewhere in America - that fact was entirely foreseeable.

Consider the I-35W bridge itself: It was built in 1967 and was reaching the end of its projected 50-year lifespan. At 40 years old, it was exactly the average age of the bridges in our country. Two years ago, the Department of Transportation noted "advanced section loss (and) deterioration" and rated the bridge "structurally deficient." How many other bridges in America are "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete"?

More than one in four of them - 160,570 in all.

It therefore would be a mistake to conclude that the Minneapolis bridge collapse was an isolated disaster. Rather, we should take it for what it really was: the most recent example of our nation's infrastructure decaying before our eyes.

Our infrastructure, from roads and bridges to sewers and publicly owned housing, is the adhesive holding our nation together. Whether it was digging the great shipping canals of the 19th century, building the largest railroad system in the world, electrifying the nation in the first half of the 20th century, or connecting the country with the interstate highway system in the 1950s, past generations of Americans laid the foundation for their future prosperity. Unfortunately, recent generations have failed to make the same investments. The result is that America in the 21st century in many respects still relies on rapidly aging rails, roads, pipes and housing built in the 19th and the 20th centuries.

In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our nation's major infrastructure systems an average grade of D. A third of our roads are in poor, mediocre or fair condition. Our subways and rail systems are breaking down more often, and are less and less able to move increasing numbers of people and goods safely. Many of our larger cities are forced to cope with drinking water and wastewater systems that are a century old. From the I-35W bridge to the recent deadly steam pipe eruption in New York City, obsolete and worn-down systems are taking themselves out of commission with devastating results.

Rebuilding our infrastructure will take an effort on par with the great American engineers who built those vast systems. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, it may take as much as $1.6 trillion over the next five years to bring our infrastructure up to an adequate condition. Government can't do it alone; its resources aren't enough, and we have seen that the political process does not always send funds where they are most needed. Washington must pool its resources with states, cities, towns and the private sector - leading a national campaign to rebuild our backbone.

That is why we have proposed a bold new way to restore and reinvent our infrastructure for this new century: the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank.

The Infrastructure Bank will focus on publicly owned, large-scale, capacity-building projects brought to its attention by communities across America. These projects will receive innovative financing packages that keep taxpayer costs to a minimum by leveraging private investment. Capital will go to those projects with the highest need - not necessarily the most political clout. By combining public and private capital, and by concentrating on the long-term projects that often go inadequately funded, the National Infrastructure Bank can help secure our economy - and our safety - for generations to come.

Yes, renewing America's infrastructure will be expensive. But failing to do so will cost even more - in slower economic growth, in higher deferred reconstruction costs, and, most of all, in new threats to the safety and well-being of the American people.

Which road will be the next to buckle? Which sewer will be the next to overflow? Which bridge will be the next to fall? These questions cannot be answered specifically. But we know that tragedies like last week's will become more, not less, frequent if we fail to act.

The proof that we can meet this challenge is all around us, in the structures our parents and grandparents built over decades with such care and skill. Let us find in the Minneapolis tragedy the will to renew their work.

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Sen. Chris Dodd is a five-term Democrat from Connecticut, and Sen. Chuck Hagel is a two-term Republican from Nebraska.

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