We’ve lived through the deluge of TV ads, robo-calls and inane horse-race coverage. Election 2010 is behind us. My question is: will the slash and burn fervor prevail across the board, or will some really important things get done? Here’s a big one: Infrastructure. We can put a bunch of people back to work and improve our national capacity for production and quality of life in one fell swoop. I found some stuff that will blow your mind. Read on.

This is a test of our politicians and media to answer a wake up call. Thus far, they have failed.  The test began in 2005 when the decidedly unsexy American Society of Civil Engineers last issued a report grading the nation’s infrastructure. Overall, the stuff that makes our society tick got a D. In 1997 the grade was D+. Our landfills and recycling effort made the best grade, a slightly better than average C+. Our navigable waterways, sewage treatment facilities and drinking water nearly failed with D minuses.

Don’t remember either of those reports? Me neither. Maybe we would have heard about them if a drunken celebrity had delivered them abusively to the arresting officer during a late night car stop.

But that didn’t happen and the media refused to connect the dots:

  • The Northeast goes dark, exposing the electric grid’s fragility.
  • Despite the warnings from civil engineers, known substandard levies collapse swamping a great American city.
  • A recently inspected steam pipe explodes wiping out a block of Lexington Avenue in front of the storied Chrysler building in New York City.
  • Fully-laden aircraft sit on tarmacs for ten and twelve hours because the airlines and the airports have not built infrastructure to keep up with demand.
  • An ancient high-pressure natural gas pipeline explodes taking more than 50 homes in San Bruno, California with it.

The best reporting in years on our crumbling infrastructure appeared—of all places—on the magazine Popular Mechanics’ Website, where author Stephen Flynn’s editorial “A Brittle Nation” appeared shortly after the Minneapolis tragedy. Mr. Flynn points out that we are like spoiled grandchildren who inherit a beautiful mansion but party every night with no thought to maintenance and upkeep. He notes that the nation’s infrastructure was built in two bursts, one in the Twenties and Thirties and the other in the Fifties and Sixties. Since then, it has essentially been ignored. It’s a little like Christmas where the shiny-new trump the boring-old.

Here’s a case in point: The Republican governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, vetoed an eight billion dollar infrastructure bill, so the legislature went back to work and cut it in half. Still, the governor vetoed it saying the state couldn’t afford such “over reaching,” but somehow he found a way to use public money to fund a half-billion dollar baseball stadium. Get it? Shiny new toy vs. rusty old bridge.

Ronald Reagan rings in my ears: “Government is not the solution,” he said in his inaugural. “Government is the problem.” His political descendants, the Grover Norquists of the world, want to starve government until it is “small enough to drown in a bathtub.” Their legacy is the squandering of our inherited infrastructure. Refusing to raise taxes for anything—not even war—and dedicated to privatizing the pivotal underpinnings of society. Yet it takes a tragedy the proportion of a freeway bridge collapse in a major American city to get our media’s fleeting attention. A troubling and absurd conversation we will now have is whether we should privatize the public infrastructure. This, of course is one of the Neo-Cons’ goals, but the underlying politics are rarely explored in news coverage. The dollars are calculable; but the long-term effect of having for-profit companies running everything from prisons to roadways is not, and you would think that is the story, but as it does with political campaigns, the mainstream media will cover the superficial horse race rather than the issues that define it. The public will only hear whether they have the votes—not whether it is good policy.

The infrastructure is largely out of sight, both figuratively and literally. It resides underground as sewers, water and gas pipes and electrical conduits. It is the roadway we drive, the water we drink, the power we consume, the control system for our airways, the safety net for our food and medicine. It is so omnipresent as to be invisible.

In 2009 we had the most-delayed summer in the history of commercial air travel; a deadly ruptured steam pipe; a multiple-fatality bridge collapse—these are the sorts of things you’d hope would get a Congress moving. By summer 2010, the midterms were in full swing and little notice was paid to the infrastructure, even when lives were lost in San Bruno. Now that the elections are over, let’s put the heat on our policymakers before the next hurricane, the next major power outage, the next pipeline erupts or the next bridge collapses.

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Jon Sinton

Jon Sinton

Jon Sinton is an Atlanta-based serial media entrepreneur and writer. He was the founding president of Air America Radio, is a radio syndicator, and co-founder of the nonprofit Progressive Voices Institute Inc, whose smartphone app, Progressive Voices, aggregates everything watched, read and heard in the progressive world, and puts it in all one place on the Mobile Internet. ProgressiveVoices.com @jonsinton @progvoices