The Infrastructure of the Wall

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Walls have been around since the earliest days of organized governments. We all know about the Great Wall of China built to keep invaders out. Despite its length it did not do the job. Above is Hadrian’s wall built in 120 AD to keep out non existent invaders, so I guess it worked. Others, like the Berlin wall worked for a while, but became an enduring symbol of freedom that eventually led to its downfall.

Nevertheless, we continue to build walls to protect us from what we perceive to be material threats from others. Below is a modern wall built between a Palestine refugee camp and Jerusalem.

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And, we actually do have existing sections of a wall with Mexico already as seen below.

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IF, all we had to do with our money was build a complete wall from Texas to California we would certainly have both the resources and the ability to accomplish such a task.

But, the question I am asking is whether, at a time of limited financial resources and maximum infrastructure demand, is this truly how we ought to be spending our money. In other words, the wall, as I see it, is an infrastructure item designed to lessen a perceived threat from illegal immigration. In that context, it should compete with the rest of our infrastructure needs.

I recognize that it is one of the President’s centerpiece programs and as such he intends to move forward with it. But, as a Fortune Magazine headline notes, “President Trump Wants to Revitalize Infrastructure. But His Budget Could Make It Worse.” That’s because among his proposed cuts are, “The DOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, one of the most popular federal transit programs that provides funds for capital projects in both urban and rural areas, will lose nearly a half-billion in funding under the 2018 budget blueprint. Since 2009, the TIGER grant has provided more than $5 billion for over 400 projects including interstate highway construction across all 50 states.”

To more fully understand the infrastructure issue and to be able to make informed decisions regarding how we might spend our available funds it is important to understand the deficit we are at relative to modernizing our existing infrastructure network.

The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report on our Nation’s infrastructure every four years. Below is a snapshot of the 2013 report.

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At that time it was estimated that the cost to repair our infrastructure by 2020 would be $3.6 trillion. Obviously, we didn’t spend anywhere near that amount. As a result when the ASCE issued their 2017 last week they now estimate the needed funds at $4.6 trillion over the next ten years. They estimate that $2.5 trillion are already funded leaving a gap of roughly $2.1 trillion. Those numbers do not take into account the President’s recently reduced budget that will only serve to increase the gap between what is funded and what is needed.

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As with any plan limited resources requires prioritizing needs. My perspective is that the wall should be subject to the same kind of review process as the rest of our infrastructure needs. Generally speaking that is a risk reward type of exercise. With that in mind I want to highlight some of the more critical National issues that, in my opinion, must come first before we even begin to think about building a wall that we must pay for, because it is clear that the Mexicans are not going to do so.

We’ll start with drinking and waste water controls because without those we cannot survive. Hence, I would argue that this is the single most important issue of all of our infrastructure needs. Flint, Michigan serves as a simple reminder of what happens when things go wrong. The 2017 report notes that, “Drinking water is delivered via one million miles of pipes across the country. Many of those pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years. While water consumption is down, there are still an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water. According to the American Water Works Association, an estimated $1 trillion is necessary to maintain and expand service to meet demands over the next 25 years.”

Fortunately, we don’t have to spend that full amount over the next ten years. The estimated funding shortfall for the decade ahead (the difference between what has been allocated and what is needed) is $105 billion. That, I would argue, is where the first ten percent of the President’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan must go.

Next, I want to focus on our Nation’s bridges. While bad roads won’t kill us, failing bridges will. According to the report, “The U.S. has 614,387 bridges, almost four in 10 of which are 50 years or older. 56,007 or 9.1% of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient in 2016, and on average there were 188 million trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day. While the number of bridges that are … structurally deficient is decreasing, the average age of America’s bridges keeps going up and many of the nation’s bridges are approaching the end of their design life. The most recent estimate puts the nation’s backlog of bridge rehabilitation needs at $123 billion.”

It is important to note that while we have spent more on bridges and in particular troubled bridges in recent years, the continued aging of other bridges leaves us with an enormous deficit to bring our bridge system up to par. It serves to highlight what has brought us to this point in most of the infrastructure areas. We built a lot of our infrastructure a long time ago and we have failed to provide for proper maintenance and replacement costs. While a bumpy road is one thing a bridge failure is simply beyond the pale. Hence, at least in my view, this is mandatory spending and takes us to roughly 20% of the President’s planned spending.

Third, I want to focus on dams and levees where the potential loss of life and homes is even greater than from a failed bridge. “The average age of the 90,580 dams in the country is 56 years. … Due to the lack of investment, the number of deficient high-hazard potential dams has also climbed to an estimated 2,170 or more. It is estimated that it will require an investment of nearly $45 billion to repair aging, yet critical, high-hazard potential dams.” Unfortunately, only $5 billion of that is funded over the next ten years and the situation is the same for levees.

“As development continues to encroach in floodplains along rivers and coastal areas, an estimated $80 billion is needed in the next 10 years to maintain and improve the nation’s system of levees. You might consider what happened in New Orleans as the litmus test for what happens when things go wrong. In 2014 Congress passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which expanded the levee safety program nationwide, but the program has not yet received any funding.” Thus, there is only $10 billion of the needed $80 billion available over the next decade.

All in we are now at about $338 billion or roughly one third of the planned spend.

Next on my list of mandatory expenditures is the upgrading of our utility grid. “Much of the U.S. energy system predates the turn of the 20th century. Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity. Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.”

While we might not lose any lives if we fail to modernize our electric grid America’s economy will be subject to material harm. More importantly, a weakened electric grid also has implications for security and the continued development of the digitized world.

Fortunately, in this instance we have been willing to make large investments to upgrade the grid, but even with those expenditures, it is estimated that we are $177 billion short of the necessary funds to modernize over the next decade. That takes us to roughly half of the President’s trillion dollar plan. Some of you may deem illegal immigration to be more important than the items above but, personally, I think that is a hard case to make.

At this point, however, we are, at least looking at infrastructure items that have less societal risk. Thus, the money for building the wall may compete more effectively for funding. These items include our Nation’s roadways, rail and mass transit where the estimated shortfall is roughly another $1 trillion over the next ten years before the President’s budget reductions. With them, that number rises close to $1.5 trillion.

Modernization of our airports, schools, waterways and ports, parks and recreation also carry a shortfall of about $500 billion over the next ten years.

It is in this context that I wish to place the proposed spending of $10 to $20 billion for a wall with Mexico. If the President were more straightforward on the issue and simply said we really need $2 to $2.5 billion we could find the money for the wall. The fact is that unlike most of the other infrastructure items parks and recreation are nice to have rather than a necessity. The wall would easily come well before those expenditures.

But, the President’s budget further obfuscates the infrastructure issue by making the situation worse rather than better. It is in that context that I ask the question, is it worth it? When we don’t have nearly enough money for our existing needs do we really need to build the wall?

I do not believe that we do and I while I know some of you will part ways with me at this point I’d like to make my case.

The fact is that the President has fallaciously tied the building of a wall first, to the Mexicans paying for it and then to a material reduction in illegal immigration resulting in less crime and less availability of illegal drugs.

Let’s get past the first and last points. Mexico is not going to pay for the wall. That is simply a crock. Moreover, the cartels are going to continue bringing drugs into the country regardless of whether there is a wall or not. They have the money, the manpower and the brains and importantly the demand is there.

So, let’s focus on the issue of keeping people out. The facts are that while walls may work in the short run, history suggests that they do not work over the long term. Certainly, in modern times, the Berlin Wall worked for fifty years before it fell. Equally certain is the fact that while the Israeli’s wall works physically they are losing badly in the court of public opinion vis a vis Palestinian land. In the end, just like with Berlin societal norms will bring that wall down as well.

So, we can spend the $10 to $20 billion or more that it will take to build a wall and for some period of time it will reduce illegal immigration in all likelihood. But, my guess, based upon history is that whether it is a change in administration down the road or a change in societal norms for an already changing American demographic, the wall will not last. If that proves to be the case we spent the money for nothing.

And, I do believe there is a better way. I have chosen to use a conservative source as the basis for my position. According to Breitbart, “A 2017 report by the Texas Department of Public Safety reveals that over the period from June 1, 2011 to February 28, 2017, the 215,000 criminal aliens who were booked into Texas jails were collectively charged with 566,000 offenses, including 1,167 homicides and 6,098 sexual assaults, with a total of 257,000 convictions.”

That report notes that two thirds of the individuals were here illegally. Clearly, that is why some folks are concerned about illegal immigration. Whether you agree with that or not it seems to me to be a rational concern.

Breitbart goes on to write, “It’s no secret that progressive politicians in hundreds of cities and counties are opposing the Trump administration initiatives to end so-called “sanctuary” policies. What those politicians never talk about is the fact that those policies continue to allow tens of thousands of criminal aliens to go free instead of facing deportation proceedings as prescribed by federal law.”

This, in my opinion, is where a meaningful discussion can be had at far less cost than building a wall. I do believe that Breitbart is correct, that we can have much more effective and efficient deportation of those illegal immigrants who commit a crime. I’m not talking about running a red light. I am talking about crimes to other people’s physical well being and /or property.

Given the numbers in the Texas example a no tolerance policy for any kind of physical or property crime would reduce overall crime by roughly fifty percent because those individuals tend to commit more than one crime given the numbers above. That’s a conversation worth having and one where we should be able to reach a conclusion we can all support.

I know for the President and many of his supporters that would not be enough. They are concerned that the ‘face’ of America is changing. As noted in the Washington Post, Representative Steve King of Iowa is quoted as saying, “America can’t restore “our civilization with somebody else’s babies” and warning of a liberal effort to destroy Western civilization through immigration.”

If that is why you want the wall built I say to you as Congressman Paul Ryan said in response to Congressman King’s comments, ““We’re a melting pot. My family’s here because the potatoes stopped growing in Ireland,” he said. “The American idea is this beautiful idea which is there for everyone, which is that the condition of your birth doesn’t determine your outcome in life.”

Keeping others out of our National neighborhood because we don’t like the color of their skin or their social makeup is nothing short of racial discrimination. As a Nation we must not support that. It lacks both the ethical and moral high ground and it is just plain wrong!

America is made better by those immigrants who are law abiding and do jobs such as picking crops or janitorial work that the vast majority of Americans don’t want to do. They do that in many instances because they want their children to have a better future. America has a very long traditional of accepting immigrants to our shores.

In most instances they do begin at the bottom of the labor market and have to work their way up over a number of generations. For me, that is the essence of the American dream and we should not be forsaking that for any reason.

The fact is we are at least $2 trillion short of improving our infrastructure and every dollar counts!

We don’t need to waste $10 to $20 billion on a wall that will not stand the test of time.

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