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Rusty pipes, pitted roads: why public works don't work

In Cleveland, some residents turn on the faucet and discover the water no longer rushes out. After decades of neglect, the city's water pipes have built up a thick residue that has begun to slow down the flow.

Repairing the water system would cost at least $600 million during the next 10 years. The total bill for restoring the city's public works would exceed $1 billion.

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In Albuquerque, about once a month another sewer line collapses. Built after World War II when steel was scarce, the city's sewer pipeline is made of concrete which has gradually been eaten up by gases. The city plans to spend $5 million a year for piecemeal repairs, but the bill for replacing all of the pipes would be $200 million.

Almost half of the 560,000 bridges in the United States are deficient or obsolete, says a new US Department of Transportation study. The total repair bill: $47.56 billion.

Such cases are only part of the evidence that the public works of America have fallen into a state of decay.

After spending a year gathering nationwide data on roads and services, economist Pat Choate concludes that the US would have to spend as much as $3 trillion this decade just to maintain today's public service level. In a recent report prepared for moderate Republicans known as the House Wednesday Group, he says the country has neglected its capital investments.

''Clearly, difficult choices are in store for America's public leaders,'' writes Mr. Choate, co-author of the book, ''America in Ruins: Beyond the Public Works Pork Barrel,'' and an analyst the high-technology firm TRW Inc.

Among his findings:

* America has hit a low point in its spending on public works. In 1965, the nation invested 4.1 percent of the gross national product in roads, schools, water, sewer, and other systems. By 1980 that figure dropped to 1.7 percent.

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* Every year 2,000 miles of Interstate highway wear out and require reconstruction. Already there is a backlog of 8,000 miles of roads and 13 percent of the system's bridges which need rebuilding.

* Half of all US communities have sewage systems that can no longer support industrial or residential growth.

Now that the public is beginning to wake up to the magnitude of nation's repair-and-renovate challenge, Choate says the debate is shifting to, ''What do we do about it?''

Public officials often prefer cutting ribbons on opening day for a new public facility to spending money for repairing old ones, Choate says, discussing his report. ''Painting them, maintaining them, and fixing them is not politically the stuff that campaigns are made of,'' he says. Officials often allow existing structures to rust and decay, knowing that future officeholders will have to worry about the result.

''But the jig's up, the bill's due,'' says Choate. Repairs will become increasingly popular as the public sits in traffic lines because bridges are closed or must cope with backed up sewage, he says.

The future is today for officials like US Rep. William F. Clinger Jr. (R) of Pennsylvania, who says all of the community water systems in his district seem to have worn out at once.

Congressman Clinger, a member of the House Wednesday Group, is one of a growing number on Capitol Hill who are attacking America's public works woes. He proposes taking an inventory of the country's capital needs by and establishing a federal capital budget separate from the operating budget.

Such an idea has already won the interest of lawmakers including conservative Republican Jack Kemp of New York, Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts, and 18 other House members who wrote the President late last year proposing a federal capital budget.

While almost every state and virtually all major companies have separate budgets for their building projects, government construction and public works are scattered throughout the federal budget. As a result, there is no list of needs and no way to set priorities, say those proposing reform.

Congressman Clinger, who is preparing legislation calling for a separate capital budget, seeks change the current ''pork barrel system of decisionmaking.''

But his plan, which is expected to have bipartisan backing, has already met resistance from the Reagan administration. Kenneth M. Duberstein, the President's chief contact with Congress, has suggested the proposal would create complications and probably offer no improvements in dividing up scarce dollars.

''State and local capital assets are deteriorating despite the fact that most state and local governments operate under capital budgets,'' Mr. Duberstein pointed out in a letter to Choate.

However, Choate says he is hopeful that members of the House, which for years has been guilty of passing pork-barrel projects, now want public works decisionmaking put on top of the table.

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