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Pay Now for Repairs, or Pay More Later

THE neglect of infrastructure maintenance should be a criminal offense, says Samuel Schwartz, director of the Infrastructure Institute in New York. Inadequate maintenance causes safety hazards and raises costs for businesses and society.

"Politics has entered too much into public works," Mr. Schwartz says. "Local officials have to realize that there is no Republican or Democrat way of maintaining infrastructure.... Early in this century public works agencies were relatively immune to political shifts and appointments."

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Politicians do not get political points for scraping and repainting bridges. That is the reason why maintenance is persistently neglected, according to a consortium of infrastructure experts who studied New York's bridge system in 1990.

The group determined that an optimal plan for New York's bridges would include a $50-million annual outlay for maintenance and a $100-million outlay for rehabilitation and reconstruction projects.

Currently, about $5 million a year is spent on maintenance and about $400 million is allocated for major reconstruction and rehabilitation. Sufficient spending on maintenance could save the city about $250 million a year on its reconstruction budget, the group argues.

Given proper maintenance, "steel can go indefinitely," Schwartz says. "We need to do the capital replacement and rehabilitation of facilities and then make a religion out of maintenance."

Schwartz says that federal aid for infrastructure work in states and cities should be contingent on local officials' spending enough to maintain the structures already in place. "Local governments have to do the basics, and if they don't, the consequences have to be severe," he says.

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