Infrastructure is a joke, a bore, a long-running public policy frustration. This past week it’s been an unimaginable tragedy and a reminder that we never have as much time as we think – in our lives, with our families?and in our political life, where so much time is spent scoring points instead of making sure the nation is safe and thriving.
It was an accident of fate that the bipartisan infrastructure deal?long sought by President Joe Biden came to fruition on the same day that a 12-story condo building partially collapsed?in Surfside, Florida, claiming what surely will be scores of lives and destroying countless others. ?
It is not clear what caused the catastrophic failure, but building experts are weighing?climate change impact as a possible factor?– including?rising tides, flooding, corrosion, cracked concrete, a sinking building, 40-year-old building standards inadequate to current challenges, and a 2018 report that found?problems but did not spark?the proper urgency. Repairs were finally about to begin, nearly three years later.
A major investment in infrastructure has been the supposed holy grail all across the political spectrum for more than a decade. Somehow, between arguments over how to pay for it and interruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic, we have never done what is necessary to be or even act like the First World country we are certain we are.
We pay little mind to?the engineering report cards that consistently give our infrastructure terrible to mediocre grades. We ignore the gleaming foreign airports and subways, the child care and health care infrastructure in other countries that get this done instead of joking and fighting and putting off action.
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The collapse of an interstate bridge in Minneapolis drew headlines in 2007, but our attention span didn’t last long. Now we hear the Surfside mayor saying over and over again that things like this don’t happen in America, shouldn’t happen in America, that this is a Third World event, a Third World phenomenon, and we are not a Third World country.
The irony is that people from outside America bought condos in this building, thinking it was a secure investment. And why wouldn’t they? We regulate construction. We have rules and codes and most people follow them. We are a symbol of order and reason in the world, or at least we used to be.?But we have been fighting a long and severe case of chronic short-termism that is now aggravated by an equally severe case of science phobia – not just fear of science but active?rejection of science.
We don’t know whether climate change may have played a role in this calamity,?but we certainly could be doing more to create community and environmental resilience in the face of this existential problem.?We don’t yet know how engineering problems or faulty construction or materials contributed, if they did at all, and investigations will take? months and possibly years to complete.
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But maybe we can overcome our short-term outlook and our hostility toward?science and each other to pass this bipartisan infrastructure compromise?that is so much more than some people want and so much less than many others had hoped. Its focus is traditional infrastructure, like bridges and roads, and it is sorely needed.?And then, if we’re lucky enough to see it become law,?maybe we will go on to finish the job by making investments in human infrastructure and climate resilience.
Those?would happen?later this year in a reconciliation package that requires 51 Senate votes (the exact number Democrats may be able to muster) rather than the unachievable 60 to break a filibuster. The climate investments, part of?Biden’s initial American Jobs Plan?but?largely missing from the bipartisan deal, would make homes, businesses and landscapes less vulnerable?and could help coastal communities like Surfside strengthen their defenses.?
We should get past the arguments about how, exactly, to define infrastructure. We should get past the Infrastructure Week jokes that signal the futility of even trying to make progress. We should get past all of that and look at what our country needs. We should look at the people and companies that have prospered wildly in the last decade, those who can afford to pay higher taxes to underwrite these investments in the greater good. We can make sure that we are protected, that constructive, collective action is still possible.?
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More than seven years ago, like the Surfside mayor, Biden invoked the Third World to make a point about our inadequacies.?”If I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you must think I must be in some Third World country,” he said. LaGuardia?has now been renovated and is a fitting gateway to a First World country. We should make that happen throughout America. We can and should live up to our image of ourselves.
Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of?”The Art of the Political Deal:?How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.”?Follow her on Twitter:?@JillDLawrence