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We need to face our infrastructure problem

We need to face our infrastructure problem

As the American Society of Civil Engineers was giving out its grades for New York's infrastructure l

As the American Society of Civil Engineers was giving out its grades for New York's infrastructure last week, you could almost picture Bluto, Flounder, D-Day, Pinto and Hoover standing in front of Dean Wormer's desk as they received their mid-term grades.

The association gave the state "Animal House"-like marks for the condition of New York's roads (D-), bridges (D+) and wastewater facilities (D).

How bad do you have to be to get those kinds of marks?

Let's start with the state's 17,456 bridges, more than half of which are at least 75 years old and 400 of which have been around for at least a century. Of all the state's bridges, more than 2,000 are so structurally deficient that they require consistent repairs and upgrades. A full 100 bridges in the state are closed due to poor maintenance. And as a state, we're not doing much to fix the problem, particularly on the local level, where only 385 local bridges — 10 percent of the total — are scheduled for repair.

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A summary of the American Society of Civil Engineers' report is available here. Click on "Download the Report Card" to read the entire report.

Now to roads, whose grade would make Flounder throw up.

There are 240,000 miles of roads in New York, enough to circle the globe at the Equator nearly 10 times. Of those roads, a full third — 80,000 miles — are considered to be in poor or fair condition. The state would have to spend about $40 billion in the next 15 years just to keep up with current road conditions.

New York's aging wastewater system, consisting of more than 600 large and small wastewater treatment facilities, is going to cost nearly that much, about $36 billion, to upgrade over the next 20 years. One out of every four wastewater facilities in the state is still in operation past its 30-year lifespan, and 30 percent of the 22,000 miles of underground sewers in the state are more than 60 years old. Yet the money that supports these systems only pays for 20 percent of the needed upgrades, according to the engineers' report.

This is not a catastrophe waiting to happen. It's a catastrophe that's happening before our eyes.

And those are just the worst categories. The report also highlights a need for repairs at the state's airports, dams, drinking water systems, mass transit systems and solid waste disposal facilities, all of which were given average ratings but which still were listed in need of costly upgrades.

"Contingencies" magazine, published by the American Academy of Actuaries, in its September/October issue paints an equally bleak picture of the nation's infrastructure and outlines the significant costs to our economy and our individual way of life if we continue to ignore the problems.

While the solutions are expensive, the costs of ignoring the problem are even greater.

For instance, officials predict a loss of $3.1 trillion in Gross Domestic Product because of the conditions of the infrastructure, a loss of 3.5 million jobs in the year 2020 alone, and the loss of $3,100 in disposable income per year for every household in the country.

The only industry benefiting from our infrastructure problems is, not surprisingly, the auto services industry. That should tell you something.

Every dollar invested in upgrading roads and bridges, however, helps reduce maintenance costs, results in fewer delays, costs us less in gas, makes us safer, and cuts down on pollution from motor vehicles.

What the solution comes down to is what helped create our country's first-class infrastructure system in the first place — a national long-term vision, innovation and investment (money).

The country needs a plan, not the piecemeal, bubble-gum-and-baling-wire approach we've chosen that's gotten us into this mess. Looking at this problem in the short-term will only generate more problems down the road. The reinvestment in the infrastructure is a long-term crisis requiring a long-term solution for maintenance, use of new technologies for materials used in replacement and repairs, and more efficiency and creativity in design and the use of manpower.

So how do we pay for all this?

The civil engineers report recommends first prioritizing the needs. It then suggests what we all figured it would come down to: taxes.

Gas prices are at their lowest level in years, with little sign they're going to go up significantly any time soon. Since we all were used to paying much more for gas just a few months ago, maybe now is the time to raise the gas tax and dedicate it to the infrastructure repairs while we're used to paying for it. The government also can bump up the price of tolls and vehicle registration fees — making the users pay — and dedicating that money to roads and bridges.

To pay for repairs to the aging water system, users might have to pay a little more for usage and disposal. The alternative to paying more now is more water main breaks and costly upgrades to systems in the future.

On a smaller level, the engineers group suggests inviting the private sector and industry to contribute to the infrastructure upgrades. Don't laugh. It's their vehicles that contribute so mightily to the problems. It's also true that they would benefit the most financially from better quality roads and bridges. As for fixing up historic bridges, the engineers suggested what we suggested earlier this week for a bridge in Schoharie County — raising private contributions through benefactors and preservation grants.

We can continue to ignore the infrastructure problem and we can continue to whine when someone even suggests that we pay a little more to get the problem fixed.

But the alternative is a continued deterioration of the roads and bridges and water-delivery systems, and much greater consequences for ignoring the problem down the line.

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