Infrastructure Woes or Opportunities?

Anyone who has wasted hours each day commuting to work, sat in traffic for an hour as a freight train inched by, waited endlessly for a bus only to have four arrive at once, or paid a week’s wages for a short plane flight can vouch for the inconveniences, inefficiencies, and travesties of our country’s transportation infrastructure.

At a November 17 conference sponsored by Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, elected officials, agency staffers and advocates from the U.S. and Canada described the daunting infrastructure challenges facing the heartland in terms of transportation and the related issues of water and housing.

The picture they painted was grim, but they emphasized the possibility of turning the dire situation into an opportunity for reshaping infrastructure priorities and investment.

Stop buying bottled water. Overhaul crumbling municipal sewage systems prone to overflowing raw sewage into water supplies during storms that will become even more common with climate change.

Use government incentives and regulations to drastically wean us off fossil fuels and throw our tax dollars behind renewable energy.

Fund high speed rail transport and street cars, rather than
encouraging endless highway building and repair.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who represents Portland, Ore., decried all the “goofy things we do, like growing subsidized cotton in the desert.”

And that’s not just on the governmental or collective level. He also lamented politicians afraid to push a gas tax, but noted “the same people the politicians are worried about regarding an extra five cents a gallon are walking into the convenience store and paying the equivalent of $26.70 per gallon for water most of us could get out of the tap for free.”

He and other public leaders lashed out at federal policies that essentially throw money at road building, encouraging municipalities to spend more in order to receive more, rather than subsidizing public transportation, high speed rail, street cars and other more environment-friendly transportation forms.

“There are programs that pay you more to pave a creek than restore a wetland,” noted Blumenauer. He is a big fan of street cars, which have been successfully launched in Portland and other cities, and of longer distance rail travel. He said a third of plane trips are 350 miles or less, meaning an expanded high speed rail system would make many of these trips more energy and time efficient, a win-win situation for the environment and individuals.

Meanwhile freight rails are in need of major repairs which will pay off environmentally, economically and socially in coming years — if they are made. Freight traffic is so backed up through Chicago and railroad tracks are so decrepit that trains creep through the area at a walking pace, clogging traffic and costing $7.3 billion a year in lost productivity, fuel and environmental damage.

The federal surface transportation bill to be passed next year could go a long way in remedying some of these problems, as could local and state public policies and individual and corporate actions.

Albert Appleton, former commissioner of Environmental Protection for New York City, said the economic crisis and expected stimulus bill could be a boon or a bane for redesigning infrastructure policy.

“When we need to do things fast, we tend to do them in the same way, and in a way that involves spending lots of money,” he said, indicating that this time we should take a more thoughtful, and more productive, approach.

Kari Lydersen
Kari Lydersen is a staff writer out of The Washington Post midwest bureau and also freelances for publications including The Chicago Reporter and The Progressive. She is the author of three books, including “Revolt on Goose Island” (Melville House Press) released in June 2009. She also teaches Community News at Columbia College and teaches youth journalism in a non-profit program. www.karilydersen.com.

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