Editorials

Our Biggest Problem is The Weather

By Noel T. Braymer

It is now just over a year since Hurricane Sandy caused record breaking damage along the East Coast. There was wind and flood damage which disrupted electrical power, fuel supplies, destroyed homes while damaging roads, railroads and rail transit. For the first time 100 plus year old river tunnels to Manhattan were flooded. Rail passenger traffic in and out of the New York area was largely shut down at the same time gasoline was in short supply in the area. Even if the gas stations had fuel they couldn’t pump it because there was no electricity. Much of the infrastructure of the region suffered major damage some of which which is still being repaired.

The irony of this is a disaster like this had been predicted for the East Coast years ago. Yet when it happened the region wasn’t prepared.  For example New Jersey Transit didn’t have plans to relocate rail equipment from yards in the flood zone which created million of dollars of damage when the floods came. But such lack of planning isn’t limited to the East Coast.

Since Sandy we have also had record breaking infrastructure damage from tornadoes in Oklahoma, massive flooding in Colorado and after years of drought, massive fires around Yosemite in California. The media and politicians love the distraction of sensational stories. Usually attention is focused on possible terrorist attacks or conflicts overseas. But weather (along with deferred maintenance) has always been the biggest threat to our infrastructure. But after a disaster attention is quickly diverted in this Country to the next disaster with no follow up to see if any lessons had been learned from the last disaster or  preparations made to minimize damage from the next one.

Rail passenger service depends on good infrastructure. Railroads need good drainage to avoid flooding and having tracks being washed away. Railroads need electricity for communications and signals; back up battery powers doesn’t last forever on the railroads. Railroads need fuel for diesels and electricity for electric locomotives both of which needs infrastructure to be delivered. Railroads need roads and highways! Most passengers and freight gets to and from the railroads on roads. Yet all these elements suffer now from deferred routine preventive maintenance. All are just one storm away from possible failure. Around the country we find problems day to day with water systems, fuel pipelines, electrical service, damaged bridges and roads  all falling apart and operating beyond their designed capacity.

The best way to prevent problems from future weather disasters is to be prepared for them. Bridges need to be made stronger and raised for higher water levels, tunnels given plugs to prevent flooding, more electrical and communications utilities need to be put underground to prevent blackouts and so on. In Germany power blackouts are rare no matter what the weather is like. This is because most of their power lines are underground.

A big problem we have is much of our infrastructure was build between 1940 and 1970. During and just after World War II there was massive economic growth and infrastructure construction. Since the 70’s spending for infrastructure has slowed way down. But most of the post World War II infrastructure is now overdue for replacement. Despite this spending on infrastructure as a percentage of the economy has gone down not up. The biggest drop in spending has been since 2010 ! This is in the name of saving money. It is in fact a case of being penny wise and pound foolish.

One thing the Chamber of Commerce and labor economists agree on is spending money for construction on infrastructure  is a good way to stimulate the economy and create jobs. From Business Insider for Nov 30, 2012 is the headline “STUDY: Every $1 Of Infrastructure Spending Boosts The Economy By $2”. “A recently published working paper from the San Francisco Fed shows that the fiscal multiplier of infrastructure spending is much larger than the typical government spending multiplier.” Who would locate a business or want to live somewhere without good transportation, drainage, reliable power, fuel supplies and communications? No one in their right mind.

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