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Nations, like people, make choices. Sometimes they are not the right ones or the ones that are beneficial. So it is with our country as you will see...

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2013 report card on America’s infrastructure says it succinctly. The grade they give for our deteriorating roads, dams, bridges, water and sewer systems, aviation, and other infrastructure components is a resounding….”D”. That grade means the facilities studied are in poor shape, and worse yet, places many Americans at risk.

Fortunately, there is a way to mitigate this terrible condition – and to do it without even raising taxes. What’s more, if we as a nation decide on this course, it would create a substantial number of new jobs for a wide variety of trades and skills. First some brief notes on what needs to be done to get our country on the road to improvement, along with some cost figures.

DAMS: there are 84,000 dams in the country with an average age 52 years. 14,000 are classified as “high hazard”; and to begin repair an estimated $21 billion will be needed over the next several years for remediation.

DRINKING WATER: There are an estimated 240,000 drinking water pipe breaks each year. Clearly over time, all the pipes will eventually have to be replaced – but the progress now is way too slow, and the deterioration is not being addressed.

HAZARDOUS WASTE: One in four Americans live within three miles of some hazardous waste site – that is not now being cleaned up. Grade for this item is the same “D”. Solid waste, however, does get a “B” with the increase in recycling.

LEVEES: Again a “D” for the 100,000 miles of levees that must be kept in repair. They prevented an estimated $140 million in damage last year, a solid investment.

WASTEWATER: Another “D”, and a serious one. An estimated $298 billion will be needed over the next 20 years to keep our pipes, plants, and equipment safe and effective.

BRIDGES: Millions of trips are taken daily over bridges that are classified as deficient – and possibly dangerous. ASCE estimates about $20 billion annually is needed to upgrade maintenance on these bridges; currently only about $12 billion is being spent.

ROADS: Still a “D” despite the $91 billion being invested annually. About $170 billion is what is needed – and that would save $101 billion in wasted fuel and time. A nice ROI to improve a critical element in our society and economy.

OTHERS: And so it goes with ports, inland waterways, transit, rail and aviation. Which brings us to the potential solution to getting this work done – and creating the jobs that go with it. It is called: the F-35.

The F-35 is a Joint Strike Fighter designed to be utilized by the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. And therein lies the rub, and the cost. The Air Force wants a conventional fighter; the Navy one that can land on a carrier; and the Marines a vertical takeoff plane. All these from one essential design. Air Force Col. Roderick L. Cregier, the man vetting the plane claims: “It is the most complex aircraft ever built”. And so it is. The program has been in progress for years now, and the first operational aircraft (the USAF version) still will not be ready till 2016. The Navy and Marine versions even later. The GAO estimates the program cost at $12.6 billion a year through 2037 – with a total cost of almost $400 billion!  That’s if we are lucky. The cost per plan has risen from $81 million each in 2001 to $161 million each today. And tomorrow?

The fact is we are already spending more on our military than the roughly next ten countries combined. The days of aerial dog fighting are well behind us, and missiles generally mean you do not even see your enemy.  And, we still have legacy aircraft that are effective and well maintained. If and when ground support is needed from the air we have effective weapons there as well. Drones and pilotless planes are on the upswing. As for the Navy, carriers are moving down on the weapons ladder because of their vulnerability.  All in all, we seem to be chasing a very expensive program of the past.

Answering the question, why this program? Clearly it is the fact that there are many people employed by the contractor, Lockheed Martin, in various congressional districts, and those legislators are reluctant to close the program; additionally, Lockheed contributed funds to 425 members of Congress last election cycle. But, legislators fail to realize that other new jobs would be created by investing in building needed infrastructure in their district, and they are good jobs involving many skills and trades.

Back to misplaced priorities, given the above facts, consider what we could do by investing F-35 money into infrastructure improvement. A missile launched is millions of dollars spent in an instant without return. A school built, a bridge repaired, a new water main system for a city, a dam strengthened, a road improved, and so on,  are investments that last for decades, and make our country better, safer, and stronger. In short, the repair now really needed most, is the repair of our priorities.

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