The Greatest Generation built America's modern infrastructure, but Americans now have a choice to make. Will we be caretakers of the hard work of past generations who built our transportation, communications, water and energy transmission systems? Or will we squander it?
It's looking more and more like the latter, unless we make a U-turn now.
One year ago, Superstorm Sandy demonstrated just how vulnerable our infrastructure is to increasingly severe weather. Subway tunnels flooded. Cell phone towers were knocked out. The electrical grid was incapacitated. Hospitals lost their stand-by power systems. Schools couldn't serve as effective community shelters. Roads and bridges were washed out. The effects of climate change we are already experiencing demands that we assess our infrastructure and redesign and repair every bit of it that is found wanting. Our safety requires it. And our economy can't afford to do without it.
Utility workers were on the front lines after 8.5 million customers lost power in seven states. These men and women left their own families to work 12-16 hour shifts repairing and rebuilding the electrical grid, and they have a lot to say about what needs to be done moving forward.
Valerie King from Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 601 in New Jersey said of infrastructure issues during the storm, "A lot of the poles were weak, they snapped like sticks and there were a lot of downed wires. It took too much time to get people back into their homes. Some people were without power for two weeks. It was unconscionable."
James Slevin from UWUA Local 1-2 in New York said, "Companies have slacked off on what they are supposed to do. Even though there are a lot of private entities out there, they service the public. We need upgrades. We can no longer have an 'I'll repair it when it breaks' system."
The American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) report card illustrates that the basic systems we rely on every day really are in bad of shape. The overall state of our infrastructure was a D+. ASCE cited severe shortfalls in drinking water systems, wastewater management, bridges, roads, energy transmission and much more.
If we don't make this a teachable moment, I'm afraid the worst is yet to come. America's infrastructure is antiquated and reliant on patch job repairs. America's infrastructure has always been the backbone on which our economy ran -- getting power where it was needed, moving goods and people from one point to another, allowing us to communicate rapidly. In the great race for a more competitive American economy, our future rests on having a solid foundation. Our children play with iPads while the gas that heats our homes runs through aging pipes.
Luckily, there's still time to turn it around, and the benefits of repairing America's deteriorating systems are huge. Investments in infrastructure ripple throughout the economy. For example, every $1 billion invested in our water or wastewater systems creates approximately 27,000 jobs. While the amount needed to repair our systems may seem daunting, the cost of inaction is even greater. A recent Department of Energy study calculated that 144 extreme weather events since 1980 had cost the U.S. economy over $1 trillion. And the frequency of these "billion dollar storms" is accelerating. Seven of the ten worst storms happened between 2004 and 2012.
Instead of spending a trillion dollars rescuing Americans after the fact, wouldn't we be better off repairing America before the fact?
Making roads and bridges, electrical grid and transit systems much better than they are today will put people back to work in good, American jobs and it will help protect our communities and the environment. The solution is within our grasp. Let's make it happen.