N.Y. Sinkhole Exposes Infrastructure Crisis

January in New York - it's the month of biting wind chills, sultry 60-degree thaws, and water-main breaks. Yes, those gushing, sometimes spectacular ruptures that inflict millions of dollars of damage - and provide an unsettling reminder of America's looming infrastructure crisis.

While the economy's booming, incomes are up, and crime is down, beneath the ground lies a maze of water mains, steam pipes, cables, subway tunnels, gas lines, and electrical wires, some of which are more than 100 years old. New York, like most US cities, hasn't invested as much as it should have on maintenance, say critics. The result, they say, is the potential for disaster.

"New York City seems to be on the cutting edge of collapse," says Clark Wieman of Cooper Union's Infrastructure Institute.

Across the country, millions of people are driving on crumbling bridges and aging overcrowded highways. Beaches are routinely closed because of deteriorating sewer systems and, in older cities, ruptured water mains have turned main drags, like Fifth Avenue here, into watery nightmares.

"It's hard to find another time in the history of our country when virtually every major infrastructure is at a critical juncture," says David Schulz of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago.

The costs of the problem range from one-time, multi-million-dollar emergency bills to pay for disasters such as Fifth Avenue's recent gusher, to increased highway deaths, road rage, and smog from millions of cars stalled in rush-hour traffic. And then there's the long-term impact on the economy.

"Fortunately, we're in an unprecedented era of economic growth, but at some point we're going to hit a wall because we're not investing in the systems that are the backbone of the economy," says Larry Magid of the National Governors' Association.

Years of deferred maintenance have resulted in the need for huge capital expenditures. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the federal government needs to invest more than $275 billion to meet the country's water and sewer systems needs over the next 20 years. That means spending almost $14 billion a year. Federal agencies currently spend about $3 billion annually.

The roads are rocky, too. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) estimates that 59 percent of the nation's major roads are in poor, mediocre, or fair condition. Thirty-nine percent of the bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Congress appropriated $34 billion in 1997 for transportation. The FHA contends that's not enough to keep the nations byways in their current state of repair. To do that would take another $20 billion annually. If Congress actually wanted to improve the roads, it would take another $20 billion on top of that. In other words, the country would have to spend more than twice as much as it currently does to make driving less of a hazard and a hassle.

"We're investing less than 60 percent of what's needed just to keep everything where it is right now," says William Fay of the American Highway Users Alliance, a lobbying group for motorists and truckers.

WITH dozens of state coffers bursting with surpluses and the federal budget deficit nearly a thing of the past, optimists are hoping that will change. Others aren't so certain. The problem, they say, is that pipes and potholes just aren't sexy. "When a politician has some extra change jingling in his pocket, that's not what he's going to spend it on," says Mr. Wieman.

The nation's Highway Trust Fund, which consumers pay into every time they fill up the tank, has a $24 billion surplus. Under the current budget agreement, that's expected to rise to more than $90 billion. But the surplus is not being spent on roads because, like the Social Security Trust Fund, the highway trust money is counted as part of the government's general fund. "Some congressman argue they're using it for deficit reduction, others say they're diverting it for other purposes," says Mr. Magid. "The bottom line is that they're not using it for transportation."

Last year, in a bipartisan revolt engineered by Reps. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania and Jim Oberstar (D) of Minnesota, the House Transportation Committee voted unanimously to spend more of the highway funds on highways. Some call it a "pork barrel" special; others insist it's a necessary investment. Because the proposal was not part of the delicate negotiations that produced the budget agreement, the measure was voted down by the whole House.

Congressmen Shuster and Oberstar haven't given up. And neither have infrastructure advocates around the country. "One would hope the silver lining in this water main break on Fifth Avenue is that the city will take a closer look at its needs beneath the streets," says Dean Mead of Citizens Budget Commission, a New York nonprofit watchdog group.

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