Fresh Ideas: Time to focus on our crumbling infrastructure



Lately I’ve been looking at a lot of pictures of ruined buildings in Nepal. Like much of the world, I’m stunned by the devastation caused by the 7.8 earthquake in April and the 7.3 aftershock in May.

But last week I saw a picture that made me happy. It was in a Facebook post from my friends at Ama Ghar, a children’s home in the village of Godvari about 10 miles from Kathmandu. The picture was of teenage Ama Ghar residents cutting up USAID-donated tarps into standard sizes to deliver to villagers who had lost their homes. Like many Nepal villages, Godvari lost at least half its structures in the quake, including the village school.

What struck me about the picture was it showed a wing of the Ama Ghar children’s home in the background: it was sturdy and still standing. The house was designed and built to withstand a 9.0 earthquake — and it got through a 7.8 and a 7.3 with no structural damage.

That, I realized, looking at the picture, is a big deal. Sometimes we forget or take for granted the value to human life, health, and happiness of good design, engineering, and construction. We shouldn’t. Good design and engineering save lives — as much as medicine and health care save lives.

In fact, quality design, construction and engineering are hallmarks of a developed economy. The devastation, ruined buildings and infrastructure in post-earthquake Nepal are a sobering reminder of how fortunate we Americans are, living in a country that has the wealth, and the political, regulatory and social structures to create the conditions for quality design and construction.

But lately it seems we’ve been going backward. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure graded the nation’s infrastructure a disappointing “D+.” The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2012-2013 reported our infrastructure — roads, airports, electricity, railroads — ranks 25th in the world, “behind nations such as Oman and Barbados, and only one spot ahead of Qatar.”

Why are we doing so badly? The ASCE says there are many causes, chief among them “deferred maintenance on aging systems and decreased funding from all levels of government, as well as a lack of compelling national leadership.”

A sorry example of this lack of compelling national leadership — let’s call it gridlock — is the national transportation funding bill. These bills set transportation policy and funding levels for our transportation system — not only highways, but public transportation and biking and walking. The latest transportation bill, called MAP-21, was passed in 2012 and it expired last week. Unable to pass another bill, Congress settled on a two-month extension. Why couldn’t Congress pass a real transportation bill rather than an extension? Because there was no agreement on what to do about the looming shortfall in the national Highway Trust Fund, which would require identifying $10 billion in revenues or program cuts.

There are more details about transportation funding I won’t bore you with. The point I want to make is a point much better made by my civil engineer husband: “You can’t build a nation on two-month extensions of the transportation bill. Agencies can’t plan for projects if they don’t know the funding is there.”

I wonder how much further below 25th place we will sink before our political leaders get the picture.

Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at


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