INDIANAPOLIS – The morning commute in this landlocked Midwestern city is an obstacle course of potholes, buckled pavement, and shards of fugitive cement. Like infantrymen navigating a minefield, motorists swerve and stop, and zig and zag in rush hour traffic to avoid the peril from below.
Drive east on Kessler Boulevard, however, and just past Binford Boulevard, in the right-hand lane, you will encounter the mother-of-all-potholes, a treacherous abyss that is easily a foot deep and three feet wide. Commuters say that it appeared in the midst of a deep cold snap earlier this year. Some have taken to calling it the “axle-breaker.”
“We’re seeing more cars with suspension damage this winter,” Ramsey Sayyah, the owner of an auto repair shop on Indianapolis’ northeast side, told MintPress. He notes that the repair costs run, on-average, between $1,500 and $2,000. “The condition of the roads has definitely increased my business, but it’s bad for everyone else.”
A cheap plan that says “DIY”
The Trump administration’s announcement earlier this month of a vague $200 billion plan to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure promises to leverage $1.3 trillion in additional investments from the private sector, and state and local governments, mostly through tax-incentives:
We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land. And we will do it with American heart, and American hands, and American grit.”
That’s highly unlikely, to say the least. It has long been an article of neoliberal faith that “more can be done with less” but studies show that public-private partnerships typically don’t raise the necessary cash, and, when they do, business tends to repurpose the project as a profit-making venture. Without significant increases in infrastructure investment from the federal government, potholes here and across the country will continue to proliferate, road conditions will continue to deteriorate, the economy will continue to stagnate, and communities will fail to thrive.
A $100 billion+ hidden and regressive tax
The abysmal state of the nation’s roads cost the average driver $515 annually in additional repair, maintenance and fuel costs, according to a 2015 analysis from TRIP, a national transportation research group. More than a quarter – 28 percent – of the nation’s interstates, freeways, and major arterial roadways in urban areas are in “poor” condition, according to TRIP, meaning that they have so many major ruts, cracks and potholes that they can’t simply be resurfaced and need to be rebuilt. So shoddy are America’s roads that executives for Fedex say that their delivery vehicles go through tires nearly twice as fast as they did two decades ago.
Actually, statewide at least, Indiana roads are in relatively good shape, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Among smaller cities with populations between 250,000 and 500,000, Flint, Michigan and two cities in California’s Bay Area, Antioch and Santa Rosa, have the worst road conditions. In cities like Indianapolis with populations of 500,000 or more, Los Angeles and Long Beach top the list alongside San Francisco, where shoddy roads cost $1,044 per year, per motorist, on average.
In total, TRIP estimates that the annual cost of driving on bad roads is roughly $109 billion, more than the $91 billion spent by federal, state and local governments nationwide in 2013, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, and more than half of the Trump plan’s proposed all-time federal contribution.
That is effectively a tax, and a regressive one at that, reflective of an epic devolution in the U.S., from the most industrialized nation in the known world, to a hollowed-out, unproductive, and decadent post-industrial state.
Infrastructure and inequality, climate change, and a culture’s road ahead
“Our built environment really affects everything we do as a community,” said Kim Irwin, Executive Director of Health By Design, which promotes transit policies as a lever for improving public health, the environment, and economic development, and narrowing inequality. “The costs we incur over time because we are not willing to spend more money now are significant.”
Typically overlooked in any interrogation of the ruinous inequality that characterizes today’s global economy is the integral role played by transportation infrastructure. To repay usurious debts to Goldman Sachs and other bankers, motorists in Greece are forced to pay escalating tolls. Israel’s color-coded license plates function very much as apartheid’s pass laws did, forbidding Palestinians from using certain roads reserved for use by settlers, which are better-maintained than roads in the occupied territories. One reason that developing countries in Africa are unable to cash in on free trade is that the woeful road conditions leave many farmers and producers unable to get their crops and goods to market or a transfer point.
One of the Black Panthers’ first accomplishments was the installation of a traffic signal at a dangerous Oakland intersection. And City Hall’s refusal to plow the streets in Chicago’s black neighborhoods, after a snowstorm dumped nearly two feet of snow on the city in 1979, set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the election of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, four years later.
The miles of bad city road combine with a shortage of mass transit options and stagnant wages to further depress living standards in the U.S. Most Americans say they could not raise $1,000 in an emergency — such as, for instance, a major car repair.
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Conversely, a key feature of efforts to industrialize, both in the U.S. a century ago and China today, is road construction and other transportation infrastructure projects.
Public investments in Indianapolis’ transit infrastructure have historically been modest. Of metropolitan areas in the U.S.with populations of more than a million, Indianapolis spends less per capita on transit operations than any other area.There is no commuter rail service and only 4 percent of residents in the county live within a quarter-mile of a bus stop that is serviced at least every 15 minutes. As a result, less than 1 percent of the metro area’s population uses public transit on a daily basis.
Betsy Whitmore, chief communications officer for Indianapolis Public Works told MintPress that it costs $156,000 to resurface one lane-mile in the city, which is expected to eat quickly and deeply into the $89 million budgeted for road and bridge repair in 2018 While federal funding for roads has remained stagnant for the last decade, the costs of road repair continue to rise, and erratic weather, such as the Midwest has experienced this winter, adds to the budget crunch.
“The story of potholes doesn’t necessarily start with pavement,” Whitmore told MintPress, continuing:
It starts with weather. Within the last few years, Indianapolis has experienced winters in which there have been big fluctuations in temperatures and rapid changes in weather conditions. For example, we’ve experienced days where there was snow overnight and then the afternoon temperature rose to around 50 degrees. Those massive fluctuations of temperatures cause the constant cycle of freeze and thaw that causes potholes. These kinds of winters can make pavement age quicker than normal.”
It’s also worth noting that patching potholes effectively requires dry weather and dry pavement. It’s not effective to put a petroleum-based asphalt product in a hole that is wet with snow or groundwater. Oil and water simply won’t mix. What makes it tougher is when it rains or snows one day, melts the next day and then immediately snows or rains again.”
Elected officials in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, the city and council passed legislation two years ago to significantly expand bus service in the metro area and construction has already begun. But that may not be in time to sway Amazon executives who are looking to expand the megacorp’s operations.
Indianapolis is on the shortlist of 20 cities, but transportation infrastructure is the area of the application where we are probably the weakest compared to other cities on the list.”
The blame for the nation’s transportation woes is not to be laid entirely at Trump’s feet, planners and public health advocates insist, but instead reflects a series of missed opportunities dating back at least four decades. In social-media posts and personal blogs, many have suggested that the Obama Administration could have both revived the economy and improved public health by investing in a nationwide effort to build light-rail transit. Trump’s proposal represents only the latest in a long line of policy failures.
The White House’s proposal of a public-private partnership is “extremely detrimental to the public good,” Irwin said. “At the state and local level, no one has the money to do what needs to be done.”
Top Photo | President Donald Trump arrives to speak about infrastructure at the Department of Transportation, Friday, June 9, 2017, in Washington. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”
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