She was elderly, spry, energetic, and she lived alone in the remains of a genteel Southern plantation, with its Tara-like mansion and sprawling lawns. She was not without means, but she was entirely without staff. She was telling me how she had recently paved with flagstones the banks of a fairly sizable pond near the mansion’s rear patio. Herself. Mightily impressed, I asked her what she did with her spare time. “Oh,” she sighed, “I like to get a glass of iced tea and just sit out here and listen to the house rot.”
Which is what we Americans have been doing since 1980, when we decided that taxes are evil and must never be raised again for any reason. We’ve been sitting around listening to the country rot. Here is what we’ve heard in the past few weeks:
1. Water Soluble Water Mains. On Friday, a water main break in Hollywood, California, sent nearly 10,000 gallons of water a minute gushing down Sunset Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. The 36-inch steel pipe was installed 98 years ago, and 57 years ago, in a cheapskate attempt to extend its life, it was lined with cement. Just two months ago, on the same street, a water-main rupture turned to swamp a large section of the campus of the University of California. For LA, just a day in the life: the city has three breaks a day in its 7,000 miles of aged water mains. The whole country — most of whose water mains were built a century ago — experiences roughly 660 breaks a day.
And what is not breaking is leaking. Houston Texas, for example, estimates it is losing one quarter of its treated, potable water to hidden leaks from old pipe.
But LA is the poster child for America the Rotten; its sidewalks are buckling, its streets are pot-holed, its storm drains overwhelmed and the system that brings fresh water to the city needs $4 billion in maintenance. Increase the sales tax? Off the table. Increase the water rates? Not possible. And the breaks go on.
2. Rotting Roads. The video of an interstate-highway bridge in Minneapolis collapsing during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145, electrified the nation in 2007 — for about two news cycles. Then it was back onto the patio to listen to the roads rot. Since then, a buckling Interstate bridge near Seattle, a dangerously deteriorated Champlain Bridge between upstate New York and Vermont, and a suddenly tilting Interstate 95 bypass around Wilmington Delaware have done their best to drive home the point that the 60-year-old Interstate Highway system (for the most part, the best highways in the country) is at the end of its lifespan, is carrying far more traffic than it was built for, and is not being repaired, let alone being replaced as needed.
3. Leaking Levees. A report just out from the American Society of Civil Engineers says that in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the nation has failed to assess, let alone prepare for, the threat posed by floodwaters in an era of rising water and intensifying storms.
“We do not have a sound analysis of the potential risk to the nation from flooding,” the report said. Congress authorized a national flood vulnerability assessment in 2007, but has provided no money for it. “We are operating in the dark as we continue to underfund our flood risk mapping program,” the report said. “The public at large and many public officials clearly do not understand the risk we face.” It said much of the nation’s flood infrastructure, mostly levees, “remains in marginal condition and there is no realistic plan in place to deal with or improve these conditions.”
“The question is.” says one of the report’s authors, “why aren’t more people listening to what’s been said about flood risk in report after report after report?”
Well, they are otherwise engaged. Sitting on their patios, listening to the country rot.