Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mayors across America would like more federal assistance with their infrastructure. They won't get it.

(Unlike today, where the answer to lead-poisoned drinking water is "Sorry, we can't help you," and the answer to crumbling infrastructure is, "Sorry, but tax breaks for the rich are more important," the New Deal's Public Works Administration (PWA) made massive investments in our nation's infrastructure. This graphic shows PWA money flowing towards buildings, ships, dams, water treatment plants, bridges, and more. We're still using much of this infrastructure today, well past its intended lifespan. Image from a PWA publication.)
America's mayors tell us they desperately need help. Republicans shrug.
In a recent survey, "Mayors across the U.S. say they worry about their cities' aging infrastructure and they'd like more state and federal support..." Further, "Mayors say aging and underfunded infrastructure is their most pressing challenge. Mass transit, roads and water top the list of priorities."

The mayors' worry is understandable. After all, children across the nation are being poisoned by their drinking water (see my last blog post) and, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, "obsolete road designs and poor road conditions are a factor in about 14,000 highway deaths each year."

But, despite the worry, the poisonings, and the deaths, American mayors are unlikely to receive additional federal assistance; and whatever amounts they're currently receiving will likely be cut in the near future. That's because our Republican-controlled Congress has zero interest in our nation's infrastructure. And if a Republican is elected into the White House, it will only strengthen the right-wing's resolve to neglect our roads, bridges, airports, water mains, etc. For example, if you go to Donald Trump's website or Ted Cruz's website, you will see no mention of improving our infrastructure on their "issues" pages (or, if it is mentioned, it's buried somewhere that's hard to find). Instead, you will see, prominently displayed, things like, "Second Amendment Rights," "Secure the Border," and "Live Free or Die." They seem to be saying, "Who cares about neurotoxins in your children's drinking water, when you can have 50 guns, 80,000 rounds of ammunition, explosives, body armor, and no questions asked?"

(Today, mayors across America are having problems with mass transit infrastructure funding. During the New Deal, the PWA loaned money to railroad companies to build trains, re-employ workers on furlough, and improve tracks. Photo from a PWA publication.)
Clinton & Sanders on Infrastructure:

Hillary Clinton is better on infrastructure than Republicans, and is promoting a $275 billion plan. But it's spread out over 5 years, and I'm not sure how effective an additional $55 billion per year will be. Essentially, that's a boost of about $1 billion per state, per year; but the nation's needs are far greater than that. In 2013, for example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimated that we need about $3.6 trillion for our infrastructure by the year 2020.

Bernie Sanders has a much more detailed and substantive plan, and promotes a $1 trillion boost over 5 years, bringing us much closer to the difference between current spending levels and ASCE recommended levels. Unfortunately, most Democratic voters seem to be opting for continued plutocracy (i.e., Clinton and her Wall Street allies), so Sanders is going to have a tough time making it to the Oval Office to promote his plan. Further, if Clinton ends up in the White House, and follows the Obama method of leadership, she's likely to water-down her infrastructure proposals--before negotiations even begin--in an effort to appease the GOP/Tea Party (Clinton has been praising Obama's legacy lately, and calling him a "progressive," but this is hard-to-swallow after he (a) backed away from the public option during health insurance reform, (b) offered to cut Social Security, (c) tried to sell the TVA, (d) refused to prosecute white collar crimes committed by those over a certain income level, and (e) crafted the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement by bringing Corporate America into the negotiations... but shutting workers out).

(Today, mayors across the country are having problems with road improvement funding. During the New Deal, the PWA granted money for road projects, like the Belmont-Concord Road in Massachusetts shown above. Photo from a PWA publication.)
If billionaires won't pay more, who will? You will - in fact, you already are.

So, where does all of the above leave us on the issue of infrastructure? Well, infrastructure will continue to crumble, of course, and what little improvements we do make will be funded mostly through regressive taxes, tolls, fees, fines, and utility rates at the state & local level. And this is a problem because already, "Virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families." Yep, during an era where billionaires keep adding more billions to their wealth but the middle-class and poor are stuck with stagnant or dropping wages, it is the latter who will be forced to pay more. A recent example of this phenomenon can be seen in the town of Fountain, West Virginia. To extend water service to more customers, existing customers are being asked to pay 80% more on their water bills. The extension project is being funded with grants of $2.5 million and a loan of $8.5 million payable over 40 years (hence the need to saddle the middle-class & poor with higher and regressive rates).  ("Fountain water customers oppose proposed 80 percent rate increase," Cumberland Times-News, February 2, 2016, start page 1A.)

Compare the situation in Fountain (a situation that is occurring on a regular basis in cities and towns all across America; just Google search words like "water rate hike") to the funding method of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the New Deal era. Back then, as long as a town could fund about 20% of an infrastructure project, the federal government--through the WPA--would kick in the rest. Another New Deal program, the PWA (shown in the photos of this blog post) used a mix of loans and grants to fund even more infrastructure projects. New Deal policymakers were able to offer this infrastructure assistance, in part, by tax hikes on the wealthy. But today, for some inexplicable reason, millions of voters are saying, through their votes, "No, don't tax billionaires more. Tax me more! Even though billionaires are getting richer, and buying more private jets and more private islands--while I can barely make ends meet--I want to be taxed more! Leave the billionaires alone!" Even worse, the rest of us are being impoverished by these voters. We're being forced to pay higher utility rates, higher bridge tolls, higher traffic fines, higher vehicle registration fees, higher sales taxes, higher property taxes, higher tuition, and so on, to satisfy their desire to serve the rich (see, e.g., "After Cutting Taxes On The Rich, Kansas Will Raise Taxes On The Poor To Pay For It," ThinkProgress, June 16, 2015).

Isn't that amazing?

(Today, mayors all across the country are having problems with their drinking water infrastructure. During the New Deal, the PWA helped bring clean drinking water to cities and towns all over the nation, like the drinking water brought to San Francisco from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (shown above). Photo from a PWA publication.)

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