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Disinvestment & Decay: The Path We Chose

I was in Washington, DC, last week when the Metro was shut down for an entire day. Our nation’s capital was utterly gridlocked as I went for a rush-hour jog through Northwest that took me around the Capitol and the White House. It was a sight to see.


A cell phone photo of a DC metro station I took in January 2014.

Philip Kennicott, the art and architecture critic for the Washington Post, wrote a spot-on piece describing where we are and how we found ourselves at this place.

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 pot holes one by one, cross your fingers and hope you’re not on one of the country’s more than 70,000 structurally 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. …

There are many reasons Metro is closed today, including mismanagement and, some would argue, misplaced priorities. It is straining to expand and keep up with demand at the same time that it is dealing with the inevitable deterioration of 40-year-old systems and equipment.

But above all, it is closed today for the same reason that much of what was built during the Great Society era now looks ugly to us: years of underfunding, disinvestment and deferred maintenance, a neglect that comes of a deeper social and political dysfunction. We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness.

(Emphasis mine.)

As I traveled through and lived in cities and towns across Louisiana, I noticed countless examples of the deterioration of civil infrastructure. In Shreveport where I lived almost six years, crumbling curbs and sidewalks and busted water mains were a regular occurrence. In New Orleans, the street near our house looks like a major explosion occurred at some point, leaving a swath of large holes and pot marks unlike anything I’ve encountered (yes, even in other Nola neighborhoods). Our neighbors who’ve been in the neighborhood since the early 2000s told us that the road was like that well before our neighborhood was flooded with 8+ feet of water following Katrina. And in more than a few of our cities and towns, upgrades for water systems, ADA-compliant access for sidewalks and public buildings, and other critical infrastructure have now been mandated by the federal government because we have not addressed the problems ourselves.


Shreveport’s gerrymandered city limits

Kennicott is right – we have learned to tolerate the decay of our cities. We have made choices that led us to this place. In Shreveport, over the last few decades, the interests of wealthy developers have led to the expansion of the city limits in ways that remind you of a gerrymandered congressional district. To accommodate the construction and inclusion in the city limits of new, exclusive subdivisions, there are places where the city limits are no wider than the road that leads to the new “neighborhood.” Meanwhile, pictures of decay abound in Shreveport’s “inner city” – even in the two middle-class neighborhoods where I lived.

In an attempt to draw attention to the grave state of the situation, the American Society of Civil Engineers published a comprehensive review and analysis of America’s infrastructure a few years ago. The 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure assigned a national grade of D+ and estimated that $3.6 trillion in investment would be needed by 2020.

For our part, and in a rare showing of higher-than-average performance, Louisiana’s overall grade was a C-. The 2012 Report Card for Louisiana’s Infrastructure, the first and only report of its kind, was led by former DOTD head Kam Movassaghi and went into depth describing Louisiana’s infrastructure assets and challenges. In the overview, the report noted several critical points (which I will describe in present terms, assuming very little has changed due to the state’s budget woes since this report was released):

  • 1,827 bridges in Louisiana are structurally deficient.
  • Around 1 out of 5 public roads are in poor condition, and driving on roads in need of repairs costs the average motorist an extra $464/year.
  • We can expect $9.3 billion in needed infrastructure upgrades for drinking water and wastewater facilities over the next two decades.
  • Public schools have current infrastructure needs to the tune of $7.3 billion.

I don’t want to oversimplify the complexity of these challenges. Addressing any of them is not as simple as finding or raising the money for the projects. But the anti-tax climate in our conservative politics has certainly contributed to the ugliness we face – the inability of community leaders to address major, long-term problems largely due to a lack of funding. It is as if we collectively have adopted the mantra of that annoying commercial about structured settlements, “It’s my money, and I want it now!” We have decided that we don’t care about the ugliness and decay so much, as long as those damned politicians don’t try to raise any of our taxes, take our credits or exemptions away, or put more “burdens” on the “job creators.”

Louisiana voters had an opportunity to make some policy choices related to infrastructure funding on the fall 2015 ballot. There were two constitutional amendments, and voters approved just one of the two. Neither of the measures would have made a significant, immediate difference in terms of our infrastructure needs or funding, though. But at least now the State Treasurer can consider whether to invest funds in the Louisiana Transportation Infrastructure Bank where before he didn’t have that option.

In the end, if we want better infrastructure, we must have adult conversations about what it means to live in community with one another and what we want our society to look like. We have the option of investing more in our communities, in our shared quality of life, and ultimately, in each other. But first we have to be prepared to support our local and state elected leaders in making the necessary choices regarding taxes and budgeting that will guarantee funding for these needs both now and in the future.

As Americans, we have every right to be optimistic about our future, but our political sensibilities and civic actions must provide the foundation for that optimism. Progress will have to involve moving beyond the tired, dichotomous debate on taxes. And we have to believe in ourselves, each other, and our communities again.


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