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America's Infrastructure In Need Of Extreme Makeover

First Posted: 09/06/10 12:52 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 06:35 PM ET

In her new book about the challenges facing the American middle class, Arianna writes about politicians' failure to make the middle class a priority. In this excerpt, she writes about the role infrastructure has played in our nation's path to prosperity and observes its current decline.

Even before there was a Constitution, our founding fathers were already thinking about building America's infrastructure.

George Washington knew that without a national system of transportation, especially canals that would connect the East Coast to the Ohio and Mississippi river systems, we could never truly come together as a "more perfect union."

Thomas Jefferson put Washington's vision into effect, creating a concrete national plan for roads and canals-- a farsighted plan that served as the touchstone for the next hundred years of development and led to America's transcontinental railroad, championed by Abraham Lincoln.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent massive federal dollars, even in the midst of the Great Depression, to bring electricity to rural America. Dwight Eisenhower pushed through the interstate highway system.

Building things-- amazing things, grand things, forward-looking things, useful things-- has always been an integral part of who we are as a country. We created highways, waterways, railroads, and bridges to link us together and forge a strong country.

We created an infrastructure--including electrical grids, dams, sewers, water pipes, schools, waste-treatment facilities, airports-- second to none. It was the skeleton that held our country up, the veins and arteries that kept our economy pumping, our prosperity flowing, and our quality of life high. But those once-glorious systems are falling apart at an alarming rate--a casualty of lack of funding, old age, and neglect.

In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its comprehensive infrastructure report card. It's not a pretty read. The nation's overall infrastructure grade was an appalling D. The report noted a downward trend since 2005: transit and aviation fell from a D+ to a D, while roads dropped from a D to a nearly failing D-. Dams, hazardous waste, and schools maintained their lowly D grade, while drinking water and wastewater remained mired at D-.

"It's the kind of report card you would have expected on the eve of the collapse of the Roman Empire," Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told a reporter from Scientific American.

Or from a Third World nation.

But despite the desperate state of affairs, America remains in denial. According to the ASCE, we would need to invest $2.2 trillion over the next five years just to bring our existing infrastructure up to a passable level (let alone a level appropriate for the twenty-first century). But we've only budgeted $975 billion for that period.

America is like a middle-aged man, still clinging to a perception of himself at age twenty-three, refusing to take in the wrinkles and the bald spot showing up in the mirror. And the bad knee. And the clogged arteries that could make his heart stop beating at any moment. We still see ourselves as a youthful nation, when it simply isn't true anymore. But unless we snap out of it and grow up enough to look reality in its sagging face, we are in for a world of trouble.

The fact is, America's antiquated infrastructure is desperately in need of an extreme makeover.


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Filed by T.J. Ortenzi  |