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Editorial: Infrastructure crisis will require innovative ideas

Nov. 08, 2012 @ 12:12 AM

From City Hall to the White House, all of our newly elected leaders face one common problem in addition to the sluggish economy -- crumbling infrastructure.

From streets and highways to dams, levees and inland waterways, much of America's infrastructure is aging quickly, and the country has nothing even resembling a plan for getting needed work done or how to pay for it.

Take Huntington, for example. Officials hear most often about the ragged condition of the streets, but the city also faces millions in needed repairs to its sewer and stormwater system, as well as its floodwalls.

West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky all have long lists of highway repairs and needed projects that will take decades to complete at current funding levels. The locks and dams along our region's vital waterways need an estimated $50 billion in upgrades over the next five years.

By most measures, the national picture is just as bad.

The World Economic Forum ranked the United States 24th last year in the quality of its infrastructure, down from fifth in 2002.

The American Society of Civil Engineers most recent report card on the nation's infrastructure found no bright spots at all. In its 15-category survey, the engineers gave a "C" rating for bridges, parks, railroads and solid waste. Aviation, dams, energy, hazardous waste, schools and transit all got "Ds." The group gave a "D-minus" score to drinking water, inland waterways, levees, roads and wastewater.

By far, our roads and bridges will require the biggest investment. The nation's interstate system is more than a half century old now, and the maintenance funding sources -- primarily gasoline taxes -- can't keep up. The ASCE report estimates the total need at $930 billion over the next five years. The projected spending is about $380 billion, so that explains some of the potholes and congestion.

Traditionally, state and local governments have turned to Washington for the big money problems, and in the depths of the recession President Barack Obama pushed through a $835 billion economic stimulus package. But it proved to be unfocused and did little to really change the infrastructure crisis.

With Republicans still holding a majority in the House and concerns about the national debt high, it is unlikely that approach will gain much traction in the next four years.

Meanwhile, some states and cities are trying innovative public-private approaches that partner with financial institutions to put up the money for improvement in exchange for a slice of revenue from tolls or other types of user fees. Government is going to need a lot of those fresh ideas and a bipartisan approach to make progress on these big projects.

Let's hope our leaders are more willing to work together on these problems than they have been for the last four years.

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