An Open Letter to President Donald Trump on Infrastructure

By now, Mr. President, you have seen much. Most are things best hidden to those who wish for solace. The issues are massive, the opposition organized, the system failing.

In the history of man there have been many great societies. Many times, mankind has achieved greatly, only to lose it all. This is exemplified with the remains of ancient Egypt, Rome, Mesopotamia, the pyramids, the ashes of the library at Alexandria.

Today, we, again have reached a position of understanding and accord. Governments vie to find relationships. The world struggles to build on accumulated knowledge and to find, in the future, a better place for the evolution of the experiment of mankind.

History speaks to the present through shattered fragments of the past. They are unearthed from the sands of deserts, the dark depths of the ocean, and the sultry jungle underbrush. Magnificent objects of architecture and art tell of a time of sophistication and reflection lost to all humanity through a failure of governance.

Men form governments to develop societies that allow a foundation upon which men can build a better life for themselves, and a better future for all. These societies are exemplified in the infrastructure that defines the quality of such a government. Rome manifested itself from the fractions of the Mediterranean, conquering and enlightening, building roads, dams, bridges and aqueducts, which both defined the government and acted as a foundation upon which they reached for understanding and equity. Such infrastructure is more than a sign of the success of a government or society. It is the very essence upon which it is built. Basic human needs must be met before one may set off on the pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and artistic expression. Infrastructure is, then, more than an expression of societal success, it is the physical mechanism which allows society to reach for a better future. It is the defining thing that exemplifies a successful government and a successful society.

Rome fell, its colosseum crumbling under the weight of time and neglect, the carefully laid roadways slowly crumbling beneath the wheels of carts. Water was conducted to cities, until the water stopped flowing, the sewer system stagnated, disease found a foothold, and the earth, again, took from mankind that which was hers to take, the stone became dust, the rivers flowed unimpeded, the cities died off, and an entire society became erased from the face of the earth. With it died the knowledge of the eons. With it died great potential. The loss is universally unacceptable to any thinking man, still, history has seen such failure repeating itself deeply into the fog of time.

One must wonder, if one understands the history of man, if infrastructure is a reflection of a well-run government, or, indeed, if the successful government is, in fact, a reflection of its infrastructure.

Throughout history we have seen the crumbling of infrastructure as a prelude to the failure of governments. During America’s industrial revolution and up until a decade beyond the end of World War II, the infrastructure of America was new, efficient, and well maintained. It gave us great advantage. Commerce was smooth on our interstate highway system, the intercoastal waterway, the many canal systems. Our ports grew to be the grandest and most efficient in the world. The infrastructure of North America drew investment from the world, because it resulted in a reduced cost to produce and conduct goods for global markets. Entrepreneurs congregated in great new cities like New York and Chicago, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Money was made easily. Taxes were paid, and our nation became flush. We continued to grow and invest, but we neglected our infrastructure. There is little glory in the maintenance of the infrastructure of a nation. Dams and bridges, highways and waterways seemed to require little attention and they got little.

After World War II great investments were made in steel. The devastated country of Japan was a better place for that investment. It was a clean slate, subordinate in government, and needing employment and investment. Our steel mills won the war for the allies, churning out tanks, arms, and planes at an unprecedented level. Now, the great mills were allowed to decay. They crumbled as Japan grew to become the greatest steel producer in the world. Imagine that raw materials could be withdrawn from the banks of the Great Lakes, transported across the Pacific, there smelted, rolled, and transported back across the Pacific more efficiently and more cheaply than the steel could be made in the mills of the U.S. That is the cost of inefficient infrastructure.

Today, the United States has infrastructure which acts as a liability. It keeps us from competing on the world stage. The cost of transportation is great because of the traffic congestion, ports are choked with containers, the waterways are silted in and un-dredged. The canals no longer exist. We regulate our manufacturing into failure, while buying from those who pollute without environmental consideration. All of the money saved by not maintaining our infrastructure is lost many times over by the cost of the operating liability that it creates. Instead, we react to failure of elements of infrastructure. This is the least cost-effective methodology to employ. It is our primary methodology.

The relationship of cost of maintenance vs. cost of repair is difficult to assess, still, it is near constant.  Always, the cost of maintaining elements of infrastructure such as dams is significantly less than allowing a failure or near-failure and then making repairs. This ratio of maintenance and repair vs. near failure and repair is close to 1/10. If a maintenance issue will cost a thousand dollars to address, the repair if allowed to nearly fail will be ten thousand dollars. There are, of course exceptions to this rule. Most of those exceptions exceed significantly the 1/10 rule.

This cost relationship of maintenance to repair ignores, completely the very real losses of a traumatic failure. Such cost is measured in devastation of property and loss of life. Those ratios are incalculable. If one sets aside the loss of life, the ratio jumps to easily exceed 1/100. Significant dams in highly populated areas exceed this substantially. For instance, the Oroville Dam in California, which recently came within forty five minutes of failure threatened the entire growing area of the San Joaquin Valley, its homes, businesses, roadways and power grid. The cost of repair, as it now stands will be around a Billion dollars. This ratio is close to 1/500. (The repair will cost us five hundred times what the maintenance would have cost us).

The cost if it had failed would have been closer to a Trillion. (1/500,000). Human life lost could have exceeded a million, and damage would have involved the entire state to Los Angeles. Costs would accrue for decades. The impact on the federal budget, too, would have been significant, an impact that would have impacted, drastically national security. This dam was in the process of failure while the emergency spillway passed only 3% of the design flood.

It may seem an inverse process, in the face of debt and fiscal uncertainty, to spend heavily on infrastructure improvement. History shows clearly that the decay of infrastructure is the prelude to the loss of society and government. If one sets out to stop the progression toward failure of a great nation, one must commit oneself to the complete and total reconstruction and repair of its infrastructure. This action alone, will change the tide of erosion of a society.

Rebuilding infrastructure produces jobs, but that is only the initial cost/benefit. The improved roadways, bridges, dams, utilities, ports, airports and control, and waterways produce a beneficial playing field for entrepreneurship and investment. Because of improved commerce, there are gainful jobs, profit increase, tax base increases. When people are a part of such an evolution, pride of country and community return, bias fades. Men need a collective effort and a shared result.

If it is your goal to make this magnificent country of our “Great Again”, start with addressing the infrastructure. It alone is the foundation of our entire society.

Scott Cahill

Author: Scott Cahill

Political blogger, construction expert, writer, public speaker, expert witness, sailor, and pilot

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