What's Wrong With Us?
By BOB HERBERT
NY Times Op-Ed: February 16, 2010
Gov. Ed Rendell likes to tell a story that goes back to his days as mayor of
As he recalled, the city had a long cold snap with about a month and a half
of below-freezing temperatures. Then, abruptly, the mercury rose into the
60s, he said, "and 58 of our water mains broke, causing all sorts of havoc."
The pipes were old. Some were ancient. "My water people told me that some
had been laid in the 19th century," said Mr. Rendell, "and they were laid
shallow, without much protection. So with any radical changes in
temperature, they were susceptible to breaking. We had a real emergency on
Infrastructure, that least sexy of issues, is not just a significant
interest of Ed Rendell's; it's more like a consuming passion. He can talk
about it energetically and enthusiastically for hours and days at a time. He
has tried to stop the hemorrhaging of Pennsylvania's infrastructure, and he
travels the country explaining how crucially important it is for the United
States to rebuild a national infrastructure landscape that has deteriorated
so badly that it is threatening the nation's economic viability.
Two years ago, a bridge inspector who had stopped for lunch in
Port Richmond neighborhood happened to glance up at a viaduct that carries
Interstate 95 over the neighborhood. He noticed a 6-foot crack in a 15-foot
column that was supporting the highway. His sandwich was quickly forgotten.
Two miles of the highway had to be closed for three days for emergency
repairs to prevent a catastrophe from occurring.
These kinds of problems are not peculiar to Pennsylvania. New Orleans was
lost for want of an adequate system of levees and floodwalls. Lawrence
Summers, President Obama's chief economic adviser, tells us that 75 percent
of America's public schools have structural deficiencies. The nation's
ports, inland waterways, drinking water and wastewater systems - you name
it - are hurting to one degree or another.
Ignoring these problems imperils public safety, diminishes our economic
competitiveness, is penny-wise and pound-foolish, and results in tremendous
missed opportunities to create new jobs on a vast scale.
Competitors are leaving us behind when it comes to infrastructure
investment. China is building a network of 42 high-speed rail lines, while
the U.S. has yet to build its first. Other nations are well ahead of us in
the deployment of broadband service and green energy technology. We spend
scandalous amounts of time sitting in traffic jams or enduring the endless
horrors of airline travel. Low-cost, high-speed Internet access is a
science- fiction fantasy in many parts of the United States.
What's wrong with us?
We're so far behind in some areas that Governor Rendell has said that
getting our infrastructure act together can feel like "sledding uphill."
"When I took over as governor," he said, "I was told that Pennsylvania led
the nation in the number of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete
bridges. We had more than 5,600 of them. So I put a ton of money into bridge
repair. We more than tripled the amount in the capital budget, from $200
million a year to $700 million a year. And I got a special appropriation
from the Legislature to do $200 million a year extra for the next four
The result? "Well, the good news is that we repaired a lot of bridges," said
Mr. Rendell. "The bad news is that by the end of my sixth year, the end of
2008, the number of deficient or structurally obsolete bridges had gone from
5,600 to more than 6,000.
"The reason is that we lead the nation in bridges 75 years or older, and the
recommended lifespan for a bridge is 40 years. So every time we fixed two,
three would bump onto the list."
He said he hopes that by the end of this year the list will be pared to
4,300 bridges, which he described as "still way too high."
It's easy, especially in tough economic times, to push aside infrastructure
initiatives, including basic maintenance and repair, in favor of issues that
seem more pressing or more appealing. But this misses the point that
infrastructure spending that is thoughtful and wise is an investment, a
crucial investment in the nation's future - and it's a world-class source of
high- value jobs.
The great danger right now is that we will do exactly the wrong thing, that
we'll turn away from our screaming infrastructure needs and let the
deterioration continue. With infrastructure costs so high (the needs are
enormous and enormously expensive) and with the eyes in Washington
increasingly focused on deficit reduction, the absolutely essential
modernizing of the American infrastructure may not take place. That would be
worse than foolish. It would be tragic.
Environmental Advocates Are Cooling on Obama
by John M. Broder
NY Times Op-Ed: February 18, 2010
WASHINGTON - There has been no more reliable cheerleader for President
Obama's energy and climate change policies than Daniel J. Weiss of the
left-leaning Center for American Progress.
But Mr. Obama's recent enthusiasm for nuclear power, including his budget
proposal to triple federal loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors to $54
billion, was too much for Mr. Weiss.
The president's embrace of nuclear power was disappointing, and the wrong
way to go about winning Republican votes, he said, adding that Mr. Obama
should not be endorsing such a costly and potentially catastrophic energy
alternative "as bait just to get talks started with pro-nuke senators."
The early optimism of environmental advocates that the policies of former
President George W. Bush would be quickly swept away and replaced by a
bright green future under Mr. Obama is for many environmentalists giving way
to resignation, and in some cases, anger.
Mr. Obama moved quickly in his first months in office, producing a landmark
deal on automobile emissions, an Environmental Protection Agency finding
that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, a virtual
moratorium on oil drilling on public lands and House passage of a
Since then, in part because of the intense focus on the health care debate
last year, action on environmental issues has slowed. The Senate has not yet
begun debate on a comprehensive global warming bill, the Interior Department
is writing new rules to open some public lands and waters to oil drilling
and the E.P.A. is moving cautiously to apply the endangerment finding.
Environmental advocates largely remained silent late last year as Mr. Obama
all but abandoned his quest for sweeping climate change legislation and
began to reach out to Republicans to enact less ambitious clean energy
But the grumbling of the greens has grown louder in recent weeks as Mr.
Obama has embraced nuclear power, offshore oil drilling and "clean coal" as
keystones of his energy policy. And some environmentalists have expressed
concern that the president may be sacrificing too much to placate
Republicans and the well-financed energy lobbies.
Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, whose political arm endorsed
Mr. Obama's candidacy for president, said that Mr. Obama's recent policy
emphasis amounted to "unilateral disarmament."
"We were hopeful last year; he was saying all the right things," Mr. Pica
said. "But now he has become a full-blown nuclear power proponent, a
startling change over the last few months."
Mr. Obama said in his remarks on the nuclear project this week that he knew
his policies were alienating some environmentalists.
"Now, there will be those that welcome this announcement, those who think
it's been long overdue," Mr. Obama said of the new nuclear loan guarantee.
"But there are also going to be those who strongly disagree with this
announcement. The same has been true in other areas of our energy debate,
from offshore drilling to putting a price on carbon pollution. But what I
want to emphasize is this: Even when we have differences, we cannot allow
those differences to prevent us from making progress."
Mr. Obama has long supported nuclear power, as a senator and as a candidate
for president. Employees of the Exelon Corporation, the Chicago-based
utility that is the largest operator of nuclear plants in the United States,
have been among Mr. Obama's biggest campaign donors, giving more than
$330,000 over his career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In response to criticism of some of its energy policies, the White House
points to its clean energy investments, including $80 billion in stimulus
spending on energy-related projects, and its continuing support for
comprehensive climate and energy legislation. But critics in the green
movement say they wish the president would play a more active role in the
"I think we all had higher hopes," said Bill Snape, senior counsel for the
Center for Biological Diversity. "We expected a lot in the first year, and
everyone agrees they didn't quite live up to it. But there is recognition
that he and the whole administration will get another stab at it."
Mr. Snape said his group was particularly disappointed that the
administration did not designate the polar bear as endangered by global
warming and that it could not push a climate change bill through Congress.
"You can't get anything right," he said, "unless you get the polar bear
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of
the administration's most stalwart supporters up to now, also expressed
disappointment in the president's new focus on nuclear power and his mention
in the State of the Union address of "clean coal technologies."
Mr. Obama was referring to the prospect of capturing and storing carbon
dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, an as-yet-unproven
technology. He was sending a signal to members of Congress from states that
are dependent on mining coal or that burn it for electricity that any
legislation he supported would accommodate their concerns.
"N.R.D.C. knows there is no such thing as 'clean coal,' " Ms. Beinecke wrote
in a blog post after the State of the Union address. "Every single step in
the coal power cycle is dirty, from the profoundly destructive mountaintop
removal mining to the smokestack emissions, which are responsible for 24,000
deaths a year."
Eric Haxthausen, the United States climate policy director for the Nature
Conservancy, has generally supported the administration's goals and actions
on energy and environment, although he said they fell short of what was
needed to address global warming.
He said that Mr. Obama's pledge at the United Nations conference in
Copenhagen on climate change to reduce American emissions by 17 percent by
2020 compared with 2005 levels had raised the stakes. The United States
government is now on record promising the world that it will take major
steps to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, Mr. Haxthausen said.
"What's needed to give this process life is a binding agent," he said, "some
force to bring these things together, and the White House has to be
intimately involved. The reality is there's a bit of a bully pulpit role
that's needed, and the question is, will the administration deliver."
© 2010 New York Times