In an area already gridlocked with some of the nation’s worst traffic and less than ideal urban planning, the National Capitol Region will come to an almost practical halt in the middle of a busy work week because the entire subway network is being shut down for emergency inspections of its third-rail power system. This announcement comes a mere day after another fire occurred in the beleaguered transportation system, this time in a train station one block from the White House (McPherson Square).
If this wasn’t bad enough, the recently hired executive charged with leading the repairs to Washington’s epically disastrous subway system remarked at a recent presentation at the National Press Club, “It’s much worse than I expected, and perhaps publicly than we’ve talking about.”
Think about that… Here is a transportation system in the capitol of the free world that has amassed one of the worst safety records anywhere and whose reliability on any given day of the week could easily be ranked as “suspect.” And if it should happen to snow with more than seven inches of accumulation, forget it. The trains don’t go. At Metro, there are no little engines that can in this system.
As easy and appropriate as it is to blame the regional government leaders of DC, Virginia and Maryland for their dreadful stewardship of this transportation system, the public plights of this system are a reflecting mirror indicative of our overall national infrastructure status and investment.
For years, the ASCE Report Card has scored how our nation is doing in caring for the infrastructure pieces that make our economy and daily life move. These are our roads, bridges, utilities, ports, airports, waterways, dams, schools and more. ASCE’s median GPA for all of these things is a D+. That’s not a grade to proudly hang on the refrigerator. It’s a scarlet letter of indictment on the lives, economies, and opportunities at risk because of poor choices, inaction, and ineptitude.
For as outraged as people are for what has happened in Flint, Michigan, and the poisonous water system that has ravaged the lives of some of its most vulnerable citizens, the water crisis there is the blooming continuation of a systemic breakdown in infrastructure stewardship, investment and leadership across the board. It leaves no political party label, ideology or leader free from blame, nor does it leave system administrators, operators or citizens with clean hands either. Everyone has kicked the infrastructure can of maintenance and investment down the road until there is no can to kick anymore – it’s just rusted away from inattention and decay. Just because you built it doesn’t mean it stays operational forever.
The truth is the blame for Flint’s water crisis and the ongoing DC Metro debacle is owned by all of us. We can find scapegoats for any problem to pillory and rally around flaming rhetorical words of “making [something] great again,” but until you have leadership willing to act and a public willing to invest in infrastructure with real resources and not shell-game leverage schemes and cosmetic facelifts, we will find more poor water systems poisoning us, have roads and bridges that are increasingly impassible, and encounter transportation systems that cause us to take our life in our own hands when we get onboard.
Those are not the actions of a super power. They are measures of selfishness that mortgage our nation’s and children’s future while risking our ways of life in very real ways. No glass of water from the kitchen faucet or seat on a subway train should carry those risks, but they do today, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And there is no future opportunity if we don’t correct this path.