Why Time Doesn’t Always Heal

A critical issue 25 years ago, our nation’s infrastructure remains in the same deteriorating state today.

DC metro1
Normally, I am an optimistic individual. Most days, my glass is half full. Accordingly, when I sit down to write this brief commentary, I'm usually smiling. This is not one of those days. Today's news is dominated by national politics. There is a noisy debate underway about issues – but not the issues that might resolve economic needs and lead us on a productive path toward addressing the sad state of our nation's crumbling infrastructure.

As we begin Cohort 3 of City Accelerator with a focus on creative financing for infrastructure projects, I'm tracing back through the troubled history of how we build and maintain this foundational element of our manmade environment. Infrastructure is often ignored and unappreciated, even though it is a major contributor to our economy and daily quality of life.

Consider a March 16 article in The Washington Post, "We caused the Metro shutdown when we decided to let our cities decay," by Philip Kennicott. Kennicott serves as arts editor for the publication and employs that unique perspective to paint a vivid picture: "It isn't, of course, just the Metro system. As you walk the city today, take note of the urban landscape – the broken benches, crumbling curbs, rusting light posts. If you drive, suffer the potholes one by one, cross your fingers and hope you're not on one of the country's more than 70,000 deficient bridges, and remember: We made this landscape, through neglect and dysfunction. It represents our loss of faith in ourselves, our contempt for beauty and, ultimately, our anger and our pessimism."

Of course, this dismal situation is not a new problem. Looking through my old clippings (collected before such information was readily available in an online format), I find two articles: One from the May 4, 1992 edition of Time
, "Why America Has So Many Potholes," by Bruce Van Voorst, and another from the November 1991 issue of the Washington Monthly, "Why Our Roads Go to Pot," by Betsy Dance. Both articles tell the same story: The deplorable condition of our main thoroughfares can be traced to a lack of emphasis on initial quality during construction; inadequate design; ineffective purchasing policies; and procedures based on lowest bid, insufficient investment in research and development, and a chronic resistance to requirements that make builders provide warranties for their work.

It appears that not much has changed over the years. The statistics documenting the deteriorated condition of the nation's infrastructure 25 years ago are mostly the same today. And the daunting task of determining how to pay for it all remains just as significant an issue now as it was back then.

Unfortunately, the current political climate, polarization of the nation's political parties and inflammatory rhetoric being tossed around in the presidential campaign makes it practically certain we won't be having a rational conversation about how to deal with this critical necessity anytime soon. We can only hope the political raging will end with the election in November, but it may also just be beginning.

On a somewhat more promising note, the Time
article from so many years ago does contain a positive, prophetic glimpse of what is yet to come: "In part, the government is recognizing the exciting possibilities that truly lie down the road: innovations that go well beyond surface improvements. Initial government contracts are already out for an 'intelligent vehicle' system involving electronics embedded in roadways that will someday permit drivers to punch in their destinations and watch TV or snooze while their cars or trucks race merrily on their way. But before the country can turn to such 21st-century roadway wizardry, it must first win the battle against pesky and dangerous potholes."

And that was from 25 years ago. Self-driving cars, anyone?

Well, it's the 21st century already and, unfortunately, the battle against potholes and deteriorated infrastructure continues with no end in sight. Infrastructure improvement: How do we do it and how do we pay for it? How appropriate and timely that City Accelerator is taking this on.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.