DMI Blog

Amy Traub

Nobody Thinks About It… Until the Streets Flood and the Power Goes Out

I was supposed to be in the nation’s capital yesterday. The Drum Major Institute honored Members of Congress who scored well on our 2008 middle-class scorecard, voting to strengthen and expand the nation’s middle class throughout the last year.

The problem is, I never made it there. I lost my means of transportation when a water main break in downtown Baltimore flooded the train tracks through the city. Amtrak suspended service from New York to D.C. My colleagues were lucky enough to catch a plane, and hosted an extremely successful event (more on that to come!) But I was stuck here in New York.

My small inconvenience pales before the tremendous disruption in the lives of Baltimore’s citizens and commuters. Businesses closed – some on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Electricity, water, phone, and internet service was shut down. Government offices shut their doors. And the whole thing was utterly predictable.

Many of Baltimore’s water and sewer pipes are more than a century old. The Baltimore Sun reports that the city has had to cope with more than 5,000 water main breaks in the last four years alone, although most have not been this disruptive. Baltimore knows it’s got to fix those pipes. In fact, the main that broke was on a list of priority repairs. But, like most cities, it can’t tackle the massive infrastructure investment alone. The cost of the city’s needed sewer and water repairs tops $2 billion. Without the cash to fix everything in advance, Baltimore ends up dealing with costly floods and power outages.

Languishing infrastructure projects like Baltimore’s crumbling water, sewer, and waste water systems are precisely the kind of shovel-ready jobs we might hope the federal stimulus package would pay for. It’s necessary work, after all, and would provide much needed jobs. That’s probably why Baltimore requested $700 million in stimulus money to get to work. Unfortunately, the Baltimore Sun reports, they only got $12 million. So the repairs proceed slowly, with ample opportunity for calamitous breakdowns like the one this week. Meanwhile, the city plans to hike water bills yet again on its dwindling tax base.

The problem may be, as my colleague Harry Moroz has written, that infrastructure spending just isn’t sexy enough. Or, in the words of Baltimore’s public works spokesman, talking about the city’s network of water pipes: “nobody thinks about it because nobody sees these things.” The immense need also highlights another point: in terms of both the economy and the needs of the American people, we could really use additional stimulus investments.

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Posted at 8:39 AM, Apr 30, 2009 in Infrastructure
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