VOICES: Our infrastructure failures are political failures

Members of the Texas Army National Guard were deployed to deliver food and water to the state's communities last month after a severe winter storm paralyzed its electrical grid, which was made vulnerable by factors including political leaders' hostility toward regulation. (National Guard photo via Flickr.)

The news of residents in Jackson, Mississippi, getting their water via delivery truck has now become the latest infrastructure crisis to appear, get everybody hyperventilating, and then recede as we turn our attention to fresher crises. But there's at least a small chance we will not completely turn away this time. With the COVID-19 stimulus passed into law, the Biden administration now turns to infrastructure, with at least one news outlet saying Joe Biden is staking his presidency on the issue. Plus the new American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card has just come out, with the nation getting a disappointing C-minus for its efforts, though slightly up from the D-pluses it received in 2017 and 2013.

Before we dismiss this with a snide "Infrastructure Week" joke and turn away, we need to address a fundamental fact. As already demonstrated by the Texas winter grid catastrophe, the Florida water plant attack, and the Jackson water situation, reality is making a statement: If our political leaders treat our infrastructure problems the way they initially treated COVID-19, we will die.

That these are matters of life and death we cannot ignore. People died in Texas because of its grid failures, though in the Florida city of Oldsmar nobody died when the hacker started pouring lye into the water supply because an alert engineer did his job. But the key observation remains: The problems themselves are trivial; our failure to address them is existential. That is, these are not infrastructure problems. These are political problems — political problems made manifest in our infrastructure, to be sure, but political problems. Which raises a fundamental question: do we want to entrust our slow-motion infrastructure crisis to people who will address it the way some of our leaders have dealt with COVID-19?

I've been thinking about infrastructure for a long time. After once stumbling on a man in a bucket truck adding a circuit into the grid, I became besotted by infrastructure and began tracing, one by one, the various systems that make our modern lives possible. I published a book about them in 2010, addressing things like how we ended up with an eastern electrical grid, a western one, and a Texas one (Texas didn't want to be regulated), and how we keep our water safe (highly trained and well-compensated engineers paying close attention to monitoring systems every single second of every single day).

I meant that book to be if not apolitical then nonpolitical. "I don't want to be Al Gore, saying 'If we don't all start using curly light bulbs tomorrow the Greenland ice sheet is going to schuss down like snow off a pitched roof and we're all going to drown,'" I told people, "and I don't want to be Dick Cheney, saying, ‘Shut up and keep driving.'" I just wanted people to understand how all these systems work, and how utterly we depend on them. I figured with good information people make good choices.

I was a fool.

Some elected leaders watched the Texas crisis and blamed it on green technology — while turbines in Greenland turn just fine in severe weather. Others living through the Texas crisis shamed others for not scavenging their own electricity. If your ideology means more to you than information that might challenge it, no information will reach you.

I learned this when I reported on our infrastructure. As I said, I set out to be purely informative: How do they do that? How does that work? Since when? Whose idea was it first? But you talk to enough planners, enough engineers, enough researchers, and you cannot fail to draw conclusions. I drew two, and they could not be more appropriate today. I told people then that my book turned out to be a love letter to two entities not commonly besieged by love letters: engineers and taxation. And I'm here to tell you today that if we had enough of both we would not be suffering as we currently are.

I don't believe our level of dependence on our systems is problematic; I think our systems are miraculous. But I do think when systems are utterly vital to your very lives, you should do everything you can to protect and defend them, and the way you do that is by hiring smart, well-trained people to manage them, and giving those people the resources they need. Engineers and taxation.

I spent an afternoon with a very smart transportation engineer for that book, watching a crazy intersection near my house. Buses and trucks and cars and bicycles and pedestrians and people pushing strollers all fought for space as poorly organized lights and crosswalks confused each party. He told me that when he set out to solve any transportation problem he always kept in mind two things. I wondered: speed and safety? Convenience and throughput? Asphalt and concrete?

"Money," he said. "And political will."

Those two most human commodities. You want the Texas grid not to fail? You connect it to the rest of the nation. Then wind turbines poorly prepared for unusual weather or dozens of failing gas peaker plants will have an entire continent's worth of peaker plants as backup. That takes political will. You want turbines in Texas as well designed as the ones in Greenland? That takes money. It's not all bleak, of course: The Oldsmar water utility had enough engineers on staff that the moment the hacker got into the system, an engineer had eyes on the problem and took action. That engineer needs to get paid to continue that excellent work.

And here's our fundamental question. Who do you want making decisions on whether you regulate the grid, on whether you hire enough engineers and pay them well enough to keep them on the job? Is it the people who dealt with COVID-19 by saying it would all just go away if we ignored it fully enough? The people who limited North Carolina scientists from modeling sea level rise? The people who shamed Texans freezing in their homes? Or the people who say we need to listen to the scientists and do what they suggest, even when they change their minds in the face of new evidence?

Who do you want making decisions about how much to pay engineers? Should it be the kind of people who treat water as a precious public good and think government should protect the public? Or those who think government should be run like a business — and will replace engineers with computer oversight systems that are cheaper than people but can be hacked as easily as Oldsmar's water system was?

If despite everybody's best efforts there's a crisis and we need to be sending water in big shiny trucks to an entire city or state like we have had to in Mississippi, who do you want organizing that response? The political leaders who planned our initial COVID-19 response? Or those who managed the Civilian Conservation Corps? The political leaders who attacked California when it experienced blackouts and left Texas for Cancun during the winter crisis? Or those who sent generators and FEMA aid?

Infrastructure is the physical manifestation of civic values, community made solid: our infrastructure, ourselves. Our values show up in our bridges, our water lines, our grid. Texas and Jackson, Mississippi, are report cards on our polity, and we are failing.

The acute problems have mostly faded now. Texas is warm again, the Florida water plant is running fine. People in Jackson have been boiling their water for almost a month, mind you, but there are votes in Washington and a rocket landed and then exploded and we're on to the next crisis. Infrastructure doesn't hold our attention. Meanwhile, people died because Texas doesn't like to regulate its business. People will die if people stop protecting our water. We can talk about infrastructure all day long. But we're never going to solve infrastructure problems by focusing on infrastructure. We solve our infrastructure problems by recognizing them as political problems.

And we solve those with money and political will.