OP-ED: Our unwillingness to fix infrastructure will cost us dearly


The other day I took the Northeast regional Amtrak train from D.C. to New York City, got out and took the next train back.

I spent $146 to see just how bumpy the tracks on the publicly funded rail system are (very). And I wanted to think about the eight people who died and the more than 200 who were hospitalized after Train 188 derailed on May 12. It was a routine many followed regularly, most of them for their jobs, some for vacations or to visit family. They never thought they would be in danger.

I also wanted to nurse my anger at Congress for wringing its collective hands about our failing ports, bridges, highways, tracks, electric grid, etc., and doing nothing. In fact, after the horrific crash, Republicans further cut the Amtrak budget, which already is insufficient to maintain rails and implement new safety technology. So much for 750,000 people who use the trains in the Northeast every single day.

Perhaps it's a regional bias. Westerners grumble, "Let them drive cars. Why should we subsidize trains we don't use?" But that is not how this country works; the corridor from Washington to New York and Boston is important for the entire nation's economy. Also, many of those Westerners would be appalled at the East's traffic jams, pollution and potholes. Yet they see no reason why Easterners should not pay to build and repair Western dams.

Folks, this total lack of regard for fixing the things that made this country great is scary. It is pennywise, pound-foolish thinking, and it is going to bite us where it hurts.

Other countries that compete with us economically have bullet trains, new dams and entire new cities. Granted, those countries have problems, too. But failing to take care of valuable roads and bridges when the money is available is singularly our failure. (Think what we could have done with the trillion dollars we borrowed to spend in Iraq — and have not yet repaid.)

Crumbling infrastructure. Such an overused, oxymoronic term. If it is collapsing, it's not infrastructure. We have heard the word so often that we don't even think about what it really means. But it is as dangerous to our economy as greedy Wall Street manipulators, currency exploiters and violent acts of nature.

When Minneapolis' eight-lane, steel truss arch bridge across the Saint Anthony Falls of the Mississippi River collapsed in rush hour on Aug, 1, 2007, the nation was shocked. "Infrastructure" became a rallying cry among politicians and the public. Did anything seriously change to start paying to fix things? No.

Nearly every city has a major infrastructure problem lurking. The week after the Amtrak tragedy, in the nation's capital, a lane on a major artery from Virginia into the District on the Arlington Memorial Bridge had to be shut down because of corrosion.

The former D.C. General Hospital, now the city's largest homeless shelter and home to at least 400 children, was found to have peeling lead paint and the first two children tested had elevated lead levels in their blood.

President Obama has talked about the nation's failing infrastructure dozens of times. Two days after the Amtrak disaster, he said: "We need to invest in the infrastructure that keeps (our economy growing) and not just when something bad happens like a bridge collapse or a train derailment but all the time. That's what great nations do."

It is Congress, keeper of the purse strings, that has failed to act. I for one will never vote for any politician who doesn't campaign, hard, on the need for an extensive, intensive, expensive but vital paint-up,-fix-up campaign.

Incidentally, the members of Congress who want to cut taxes for the rich and embark on new military campaigns but won't spend money to fix infrastructure (and who also refuse to raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour) earn $84 an hour.

— Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may send her email at