An alarm bell went off this week about the state of the nation's infrastructure and what government inaction is costing every American household – but the news media seems to have hit the mute button on the alarm in the rush of wall-to-wall Donald Trump coverage.
But something that is costing each American family on average $3,400 a year is worth at least a few minutes of discussion – especially in the context of this Trump-besotted presidential campaign.
That is the money that the American Society of Civil Engineers this week said in its latest "Failure to Act" report that each U.S. household is losing "each year in disposable income due to infrastructure deficiencies." Seen another way, each family pays a $3,400 annual tax for what federal, state and local governments don't spend to properly maintain and expand our transportation, water and electricity networks.
Not adequately investing in infrastructure is costing the economy more than three times more than what it would cost to bring these systems up to a state of good repair. Closing the investment gap between what we're spending now on the range of infrastructure needs – from roads and bridges to airports and waterways – and what we should be spending between now and 2025 would take about $1.4 trillion, the ASCE says. The cost of not spending that money, according to the ASCE? Almost $4 trillion. With that loss comes the loss of 2.5 million jobs.
It's a sobering number – perhaps too sobering for the mainstream media, which for the most part passed on the chance to even mention this report.
To be fair, this is an old story – the infrastructure investment deficit is well known, especially in inside-the-Beltway political and media circles. Nonetheless, the effects of the infrastructure investment deficit remain a front-page story for millions of people whose lives are directly affected in fundamental ways.
Think of the families in Flint, Mich., that exemplify the millions of families served by the nation's 7.3 million lead service lines – each one a potential source of a brain-damaging toxin. Even not counting the cost of replacing these lead lines, the nation is spending on average $10 billion a year less than it should to maintain its water systems. An additional program to replace all of the lead water pipes in the country would cost at least $30 billion.
Likewise, consider the plight of people who rely on public transportation: According to the report, more than 40 percent of buses and 25 percent of rail cars are in marginal or poor condition. The average transit bus has been on the road since Bill Clinton was president. Washington's Metro system, whose recent troubles have gotten national attention, is suffering a lot of self-inflicted wounds, but one of its problems is that it is still running cars that were on the system when it opened in 1976.
It's probably a safe bet that when Donald Trump sat down with House Speaker Paul Ryan this week to talk about unifying the party around Trump's candidacy, the deficit charts that Ryan showed Trump were not related to the infrastructure investment deficit, but were focused instead on Ryan's obsession with the federal spending deficit. Ryan would like to see a Republican presidential campaign that pounds on federal deficit spending as a national crisis – even though it is not. Meanwhile, the dollars that conservatives won't raise and spend are setting up a real crisis, with consequences that range from lost fuel and time in traffic jams to the serious health effects of lead poisoning.
That's a story the media blew an opportunity to tell this week, but there's still time. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has already proposed a plan that would commit the nation to closing most of that $1.4 trillion infrastructure investment gap in the next 10 years. (So does the People's Budget introduced by the Congressional Progressive Caucus earlier this year.) Hillary Clinton has a far less expansive proposal, but it would be a significant step above where the nation is now.
Trump is well known for the wall he would build to keep immigrants from crossing the Mexican border into the United States, but he also said in a December debate that "the $4 trillion" the U.S. spent "trying to topple various people" could have been spent "in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges ... our airports and all of the other problems we've had."
Trump has a point – but he doesn't make it often enough, and there is a powerful core within the Republican party that would prefer he not make it again. The media's yawns when experts call attention to our infrastructure crisis don't help. That's why when the mainstream media yawns, it's critical that progressive activists stay awake – and demand a plan to take that $3,400 infrastructure deficit tax off the backs of American households.