Clinton must rebuild the infrastructure

Jack L. Levin

January 14, 1993|By Jack L. Levin

DEAR President Clinton:

I look forward with the major- ity of my fellow Americans to your inauguration next week. But now comes the hard part -- delivering on promises, fulfilling high expectations, converting easy generalities into tough specifics. And most challenging, deciding where to start.

You've been getting plenty of advice, so let me add mine. I respectfully suggest that your top priority be the issue you frequently raised during the campaign: the infrastructure, the parts of our national physical existence that are largely out of sight and out of mind, our water mains, sewers, gas and electric conduits, highways, bridge foundations, tree-and-brush-clogged streams and silted riverbeds.

They deserve your immediate attention because:

* They have been neglected and patched up so long that many are in a state of imminent collapse, disasters ready to happen;

* Their long-overdue repair and replacement can provide instant work at decent wages for many deprived citizens who have been considered unemployable, untrainable and uneducable for high-tech jobs;

* They are clearly government's responsibility, not likely to be fixed by the private sector alone or by George Bush's thousand points of light; and

* They comprise a classic "investment in America" which could justify a tax increase to fill vital public needs.

The latest available figures show unemployment among all groups at between 7 and 8 percent, but about one of every three black youths between 20 and 24 is out of work, and those numbers do not include thousands laid off by General Motors, IBM, Xerox, Westinghouse and too many other major employers.

Directly beneath where they are sitting around feeling useless there is important work for them. There are thousands of miles of ancient, rotting sewers, deteriorated water mains and conduits. Alongside the unemployed are hundreds of thousands of miles of dilapidated roads, bridges, tunnels and wilderness river beds in a state of imminent collapse.

As you pointed out during the campaign, there's an obvious need to put to work those who are ready, eager and able. Why, then, has it not happened?

First, most of the nation's infrastructure does not appear on television, nor does the national debt. Our leaders have led us to believe that if we can't see it, taste it, wear it, own it or drive it, it isn't a problem. We have been told not to worry, to be happy, to consume, charge it and let the kids pay later. Don't think about the problem, and it may go away.

You know better.

The second reason for neglect is that we and our government are mobilized by crisis. If it ain't broke (yet), we don't fix it. However inevitable the break, we don't plan for it; we just wait for it.

As you have warned us, this crisis has been brewing for decades. However, by and large the enemy is not visible, though threatens every one of us, rich, middle class or poor, whose life and health depend on water, sewage, sanitation and transportation. We cannot forever play the waiting game, napping on top of a rumbling volcano.

Warning signals have gone unheeded. In San Francisco, we ignored known weaknesses in the double-deck I-880, which collapsed during an earthquake. A continent away, in Baltimore, where a water main break recently cut off water to hundreds of families for several days, there are 3,600 miles of old water mains, valves, transmissions and service mains under the city streets, plus 2,000 miles of sewer mains, plus 2,660 miles of storm drains (several more than 100 years old), and 153 bridges requiring maintenance, repair or replacement.

New York City is fatalistically indifferent to the impending collapse of wooden mains, some installed by Aaron Burr, still carrying water from reservoirs 125 miles distant. Colorado has not been disturbed noticeably by the loss of lives and millions of dollars in damage from the bursting of a dam that had been rated hazardous years before.

Please use your bully pulpit to wake us up. Then lead us into action, into a vast reconstruction program comparable in scope to such Depression projects as the Works Progress Administration. Operation Infrastructure is the classic investment in America you have called for.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

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