Americans deserve to live in a country where they don’t fear the next dam breach, pipeline burst or bridge collapse.
Our nation’s infrastructure is facing a breaking point. Our roads, bridges, highways and dams are not only chronically underfunded, but now are occasionally putting the American people in harm’s way.
In March, the American Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers graded America’s infrastructure with a D+. This is unacceptable. As a former Republican congressman who served in a Democratic president’s cabinet, I’ve seen firsthand how infrastructure needs can cross party lines. With today’s challenges and stakes, there’s simply no excuse strong enough to justify continued inaction.
The Consequences of Doing Nothing
Just look to Northern California, where water gushed from the Oroville Dam this past February, forcing 200,000 Californians to flee their homes, unsure when they would be able to return, if ever.
Thankfully, a tragedy was averted this time. Crews moved 1,200 tons of rock an hour to fix our nation’s tallest dam. Residents were allowed to return home, but with the dam still in a state of disrepair, most still worry. And a month later, officials now predict the repair costs to be “much higher” than the initial estimate of $200 million, leaving many to wonder when they’ll be able to feel safe again.
Unfortunately, the disaster of the Oroville Dam is just another vivid example of America’s crumbling infrastructure. Yes, Oroville was in the spotlight for a few weeks, but it is not the only facility that requires upgrades and investments to avoid another problem.
It is one of 87,000 dams in the United States, and one of more than 4,000 that are deemed “unsafe,” according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. Like most other dams, it is also much older than it should be, only exacerbating the repair costs currently estimated at $21 billion.
Environmental groups have warned federal and state officials continuously about the harm of skimping on infrastructure. In fact, 12 years ago, we were warned that the Oroville dam failed to meet modern safety standards and could erode during heavy winter rains. Today, we face the consequences of doing nothing.
And it’s not just our dams that are aging. In Flint, Michigan, we saw the consequences of neglecting our pipelines, and on Long Island, we saw the cost of ignoring our rails, leading to a commuter train derailment in October which injured 33 people.
A New Mindset
For decades, policymakers at all levels of government have resisted bringing America’s infrastructure to 21st-century standards, refusing to raise revenues and assign the necessary funds. It’s time to change that mindset. Investing in our infrastructure is the only way to prevent further disasters, and in reality, the single best way to build better middle-class, high-paying jobs.
In order for that change to happen, we need to see action from the top—and soon. President Trump’s promises on the campaign trail to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels [and] airports” was a good first step, and has added urgency to addressing this challenge. What is needed now is a concrete proposal from the administration in order for Congress to negotiate a long-term infrastructure package.
Repatriation could provide a short-term fix, but offering tax credits to private businesses in the hope of spawning infrastructure investment is not nearly enough.
We need the president and the Congress to agree on long-term sources for funding, including increasing and indexing the gas tax, establishing a national infrastructure bank, expanding the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), and transitioning to a road user fee. But the federal government shouldn’t work alone. It must collaborate with our mayors and governors, granting them the flexibility and power to voice their needs and concerns. They are the ones who understand their needs best.
The American people deserve to live in a country where they don’t fear the next dam breach, pipeline burst or bridge collapse. Infrastructure is the stuff that all of us depend on each and every day. The destruction at the Oroville Dam showed us and the world why we have to act now. Enough with the temporary fixes. It is time to put our nation’s safety first. It’s time to pass a bold and sustainably funded long-term infrastructure plan. iBi
Ray LaHood is a former U.S. Secretary of Transportation and a current co-chair of the bipartisan advocacy group Building America's Future.