10. Reinvest in Public Works
Nader wrote in 2012, when this book was written and after Obama’s big stimulus package that brought the growth in employment back to positive after the Great Recession at the end of the Bush years:
We are overdue to launch a major public works initiative to repair one of society’s greatest storehouses of shared wealth: the basic infrastructure we all rely on for critical services, the physical plant that has historically enabled commerce to expand and thrive like no other.
If our nation is going to fulfill its truly unmet needs, we must close the public investment deficit. It’s not always helpful to compare the government with a corporation, but consider this: any corporation that collected healthy revenues every year but allowed its plant to deteriorate would be considered reckless, a bad prospect to investors. It’s troubling to think that the same could be said for our government, which is recklessly failing to invest in the country’s long-term prosperity and well-being, as determined both by traditional economic yardsticks and by more citizen-oriented standards.
The benefits of public works are widespread. They are not confined to the corporate elite, but neither do they concentrate among the poor. Unlike the narrowly tailored subsidies for corporate welfare, whose benefits are captured by special interests, public works enhances the well-being of the entire society.
Nader lists these specific areas of public works that need investment.
The schoolhouse. Nationwide 60% of schoolchildren (32 million) attend a school with at least one inadequate building feature, such as roof, framing, floor, plumbing, heating, power, lighting, and safety. Most of these schools are affected by multiple deficiencies.
The health, safety, and environmental issues affect how well students learn and how well teachers teach. This isn’t just an inner city problem, though it is worst there. Schools in suburban and rural districts also must deal with deficient buildings.
Urban schools can spare only 3.5% of their budgets for facilities and 85% of that money goes to emergency repairs. They can’t afford what they need.
Estimates (somewhat before 2012) of the need are $268 billion for infrastructure and $54 billion for technological upgrades.
In the recent election Wayne County (which includes Detroit) asked its residents to tax themselves to pay a little bit more for schools. The request was made because the state has been so stingy. It thankfully passed 54% - 46%. The collection and funding formula means suburban residents will give a boost to Detroit schools.
Clean drinking water. This book was written before the water fiasco in Flint. Even so, there have been several cities around the country, including New York, that asked residents to boil water.
Yes, we have a Safe Drinking Water Act, but it is frequently violated. In addition, too many possible contaminants are not regulated. All this is “a public health nightmare waiting to happen – and one in which the poor, the young, the elderly, and the ill are especially vulnerable.” In 2006, the CDC estimated 16.5 million people became ill each year from waterborne illnesses related to drinking water. A 2010 estimate put the cost of hospital stays for 3 common waterborne illnesses at a half billion dollars.
Estimate of the cost in 2007 was $335 billion over 20 years. That includes $52 billion needed immediately to meet Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. The estimate includes both improvements at the plants and of transmission systems.
Roads, bridges, and highways. The national highway system gets about $150 billion a year in maintenance. But a 2009 estimate put the need at $930 billion. Bad roads affects the cost of travel, including vehicle costs, delay, and crash costs. Doing the repairs is a benefit to the economy through more jobs to do the work and less money lost through delay, crashes, and vehicle repair.
Parks. The National Parks Service, which maintains 58 parks, has a backlog of $10.8 billion of deferred maintenance and construction. Their operating shortfall is at least a half billion.
Because of these shortfalls the parks are not able to monitor their wildlife. The parks in the west have lost 29 mammal populations. Physical plants, roads, and playgrounds are falling apart. Historical artifacts, such as at Gettysburg, aren’t properly stored and are being lost to mildew and rot. Cuts in park staff means they’re not able to manage large crowds, which endangers the long-term health of the parks.
That’s just the national parks. State and city parks are also deteriorating and viewed as unsafe.
In a society as rich as ours is it smart that we refuse to invest in the parks – federal, state, and local – that bring us together as communities?
Mass transit. Maintaining mass transit systems at current levels needs $15.8 billion a year. Bringing the systems up to 2026 targets requires $22 billion a year.
During my two trips to Seattle this year I could see some of the existing mass transit systems. I rode the light rail system from the airport to the train station. I took a bus from a suburb to downtown. I also saw from the rush hour traffic jams (and not just on highways) how inadequate the system is. Nader says the money mentioned above only covers what planners envision, and Nader believes we need a great deal more. That more means comprehensive bus, light rail, and heavy rail systems both within metro areas and between them.
The social cost of moving people between cities by car is simply too high in terms of air pollution, greenhouse warming, and auto accidents, not to mention possible national security evacuation emergencies. Investment in rail should be given clear priority over investments in widening interstates.
These three elements – bus service, subways//light rail, and heavy rail – should be viewed not just as items on a checklist but part of an integrated, seamless plan to make metropolitan and intercity travel safe, easy, efficient, affordable, and at least as desirable as most auto transport. It should be a central part of how we create liveable cities, with reduced sprawl, pollution, and congestion and enhanced equity, mobility, and neighborliness.
A public works agenda is an environmental agenda. It cuts down on pollution and deters sprawl. It is a pro-consumer agenda, providing clean water, less wear on cars, and better schools. It is a pro-worker, pro-development agenda, creating well-paying jobs that can’t be sent overseas.
Southeast Michigan (the Detroit metro area) has two transit systems, one for Detroit and one for the suburbs. I’m pretty sure it’s a race thing. One big effect is it keeps city residents from jobs in the suburbs. A comprehensive system, uniting the two, was designed and the various political structures created. This past election the entire region voted on a tax to fund the new comprehensive system. It lost – by 1% of the vote. Sigh.