Crumbling Infrastructure Not Just Bad For Economy, It’s Also Deadly

Dave Johnson

A building in Harlem blows up because of a gas leak, killing at least eight people and injuring at least 70 others. A bridge collapse in Minneapolis killed 13 and injured 135. New Orleans’ levees needed to be fixed but weren’t, and more than 1,800 people died as a result. The Chamber of Commerce’s Thomas Donohue said back in 2007, “Poorly maintained roads contribute to a third of all highway fatalities. That’s more than 13,000 deaths every year.”

These are just a few example of the harm done because we are not maintaining our country’s public and private infrastructure. The problem of our crumbling infrastructure is not just costing us jobs and economic growth, it is killing people.

The Most Recent Example

A building in New York City blew up because of poorly maintained gas lines. The explosion killed at least eight people and injured at least another 70. The problem extends much, much further than just this building. The New York Times, in “Beneath Cities, a Decaying Tangle of Gas Pipes,” reports:

In 2012 alone, Con Edison and National Grid, the other distributor of natural gas in the city, reported 9,906 leaks in their combined systems, which serve the city and Westchester County. More than half of them were considered hazardous because of the dangers they posed to people or property, federal records show. (There are more than 1.2 million miles of gas main pipes across the country. Last year, gas distributors nationwide reported an average of 12 leaks per 100 miles of those pipes.)

In 2010, a 30-inch gas pipeline exploded under a suburb in San Bruno, California and took out an entire neighborhood, killing eight people.

Near Misses

We read about the big ones: buildings blowing up, bridges falling down, people killed. But there are many, many near misses. From the Times story:

“It’s like Russian roulette,” said Robert B. Jackson, a professor of environment and energy at Stanford University who has studied gas leaks in Washington, D.C., and Boston. “The chances are, you are going to be lucky, but once in a while, you’re going to be unlucky.”

Striking in federal records is just how frequently there are near misses.

Last year, a Bronx woman awoke in the middle of the night to the pungent odor of gas. Her husband checked it out, but after smelling nothing unusual, he lit a cigarette. Suddenly, there was a flash of fire that left his face badly burned. In 2011, a 28-year-old man in Bayside, Queens, saw smoke coming from a basement utility room just before a small explosion blew the door open. The cause was traced to a leak in a 54-year-old steel main in the street nearby.

Why Aren’t We Fixing The Infrastructure?

It costs money to replace old pipelines, the outdated power grid, and all the rest of the old infrastructure. Most gas pipelines and electric power lines are the responsibility of the private sector, the ones who want government to “just leave us alone” and stop all the regulation. They want “government off our backs” so they can use the money they should be putting into infrastructure maintenance to give out as profits instead.

Our public roads, schools, bridges, airports, etc. also need maintenance and replacement. That costs money, too – “government spending.”

But it also costs money to save money. If you put off maintenance until something breaks, you have to pay a lot more for replacement. And you have to pay the economic cost of bad roads, etc. By the same token if you deregulate and don’t require private companies to do their needed maintenance, they’ll shift that cost over into the profit line – for a while, until the damage is done, people are injured and penalties and fines are imposed. “Saving” money by putting off infrastructure maintenance costs money later, and now we see how it costs lives, as well.

We have been deferring the needed work to keep our public and private infrastructure up to date since the Reagan years because doing so involved regulation and the dreaded “government spending.” We all know that putting this off is bad for our economy. We all know that we could create millions of jobs right now if we started fixing it. We all know that it will cost much more later if we don’t fix this now.

And here’s the thing: We all know that Republicans are blocking and obstructing this to keep taxes low (and profits high) for the rich and their corporations and because they think it’s making Obama look bad and will help them in coming elections.

We need a functioning government that is run for We the People, not an obstructed government that is run for the benefit of a few billionaires and their giant corporations. Please show up and vote in the coming elections. Do not let them distract you or discourage you. Do not let them make you think it is hopeless. Do not let them win this way.

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