A former editor of mine once argued that “infrastructure” is the most boring word in journalism – guaranteed to induce drowsiness within 10 seconds. Today, the people of Texas begged to differ as they faced power blackouts amid historic cold. Parents of students waiting to go back to aging public school buildings also might disagree.
Infrastructure seems to matter only when it fails. From roads to school buildings to the energy grid, American infrastructure is overstretched. Why is this so hard to fix? One answer is that it was never easy. Seeking to catch up to England, Alexander Hamilton proposed a bold plan to improve America’s roads and canals. Congress ignored it. That was 1791. Likewise, some states today want to keep the government small and out of the way of business. That can lead to lapses in oversight, as in Texas, the only state with a privatized power grid.
The Texas grid “has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union,” one analyst told the Houston Chronicle. “It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.”
Meanwhile, states embracing larger government, such as California, are thinking differently than they did in the 1950s. They’re spending less on things than people, from public sector employees to the poor. Big public works projects also often run afoul of the environment.
Put simply, Americans are putting other things first. But when voters care, localities are finding innovative ways to raise money to do things, like with bond measures from Maine to Seattle. Which, perhaps, gives some hope to Texans and public school parents.