April 2014

The recent catastrophic gas main blast in East Harlem is yet another tragic reminder of our nation’s severely aging infrastructure.

According to reports, the gas main in question — a cast iron pipe installed in 1887 — was used extensively by Consolidated Edison, the huge natural gas supplier of New York City. It was unclear at press time whether it had anything to do with the explosion. But the main was 127 years old, and common sense should tell us that it probably was a factor.

Just a day before the explosion, the Center for an Urban Future released a report about the City’s aging infrastructure. In it, the New York-based group said an estimated $47.3 billion is needed over the next five years to upgrade the City’s infrastructure. (Nationally, by the way, it’s estimated that we need anywhere between $3 trillion to $5 trillion over the next 20 years to upgrade the U.S. water and wastewater systems. This according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute.)

Just after the explosion, consternation and finger-pointing began. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel expressed shock and dismay that the City was using pipes built in the 1800s. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio blamed the federal government, saying it’s their responsibility to provide more money to cities for repair and upgrades to infrastructure. D.C., in general, then proceeded to do nothing.

When solutions are proffered, tax increases inevitably come up and that’s a deal killer in D.C. But we can’t just tax our way out of this mess, anyway. Taking that $3 trillion number above: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, currently there are about 147 million people in the workplace. To get to $3 trillion (on the low end of what’s needed), those of us with jobs would have to contribute approximately $20,000 each over the course of 20 years.

But maybe not looking at the big picture and thus getting frightened and frustrated over the huge hole we’re in could be the way to start. Every tax season, we’re asked if we want to donate $3 to the presidential election campaign. Perhaps, we could do the same but with infrastructure. Sure, that’ll be a proverbial drop in the bucket but the cost of doing nothing or very little is just too high.

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