Infrastructure: Who Pays?

There are still quite a few of us around who can remember the days before our current highway system was built. Traveling meant crawling from small town to small town on 2-lane roads in lines of traffic. (Something folks today consider a nostalgic experience?) Even if you do remember that transition, you’re probable shocked when you encounter other random facts like electrification for much of Iowa overlapped the Great Depression (mid-1930s) and that the first sewage treatment plant to serve a large, border city in Iowa entered service after 1938. Until that time, and for several years after for many municipalities, raw sewage was simply dumped into the Mississippi and Missouri rivers!

The initial build-out of all this and other related infrastructure was a herculean task, indeed, and one largely paid for by what is routinely called “the Greatest Generation.” Unfortunately, the services we now take for granted have seen steadily declining funding as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since 1970. At the same time we chide our children to “take care of” their things, we steadfastly refuse to spend what is required to maintain what our predecessors built for us. To be sure, when things break, they are fixed but, as we’ve evolved to become a more throwaway culture, preventive maintenance is most often deferred.

Weighing the cost of repair against the public cost of improvements and the individual costs associated with infrastructure decay is a difficult calculation. Tax and spend sensitivities collide with our collective responsibilities for public services and it’s all complicated by the private expense of repairing our cars, cleaning up basement sewage, potential medical bills and replacing food lost when the power goes out. It might be argued that we all pay, one way or another and that the only decision involves deciding to pay “wholesale” as a community together or “retail” when a failure directly affects us.

A worthwhile assessment (not political):