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Reporter’s Notebook: Ray Suarez Discusses Series on Troubled U.S. Infrastructure

As the NewsHour airs a series of reports on the country’s ailing infrastructure, produced in collaboration with WNET New York, senior NewsHour correspondent Ray Suarez spoke with Steve Goldbloom about his experiences examining the issue. “We’re getting wakeup calls from time to time about the kind of attention this is going to need,” Suarez said of the lack of attention

STEVE GOLDBLOOM: Welcome to this Reporter’s Notebook. My name is Steve Goldbloom, and we’re here with the NewsHour’s senior correspondent Ray Suarez. Hello, Ray.


STEVE GOLDBLOOM: Day one was Monday for your infrastructure series. Could you tell me what the first one was about?

RAY SUAREZ: We took a look at roads and bridges. Certainly America’s attention was focused on the problem with infrastructure in roads and bridges when that bridge over the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities collapsed in 2007. And all that did was bring up to public attention what was a problem all over the country — and a severe one — that thousands of bridges are considered structurally substandard. They’ve had years of deferred maintenance, years when municipal systems have saved infrastructure money by waiting another year to do necessary repairs, waiting an extra year to do the necessary upgrades. And now we’ve got too many bills coming due all at once. And on the roads and bridges, there’s billions of dollars of work that needs to be done and a really unclear picture of how we pay for all that work.

STEVE GOLDBLOOM: In Pennsylvania, which was where you focused your report on Monday mainly, it was going to cost something like $14 billion, and it sounded like yourself and Gov. Ed Rendell weren’t sure who was going to pay for all that.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it’s unclear, because right now we’re at a time of declining economic forecasts. People are talking about economic activity in the United States declining over the near future. The largest single source of funds for those kinds of repairs is the gasoline tax, the federal tax on gasoline. Right now, Americans are trying to figure out how to burn less gasoline, meaning that their efforts at conservation are going to put less money into the federal kitty to make the necessary repairs to roads and bridges, and never mind expand the network. Just making what we’ve got safe and secure is going to take untold billions.

STEVE GOLDBLOOM: This leads into Tuesday’s report you did on the ports of New Orleans. You talk about the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, that’s a $900 billion project. The repair job was approved by Congress back when you were playing Little League in Bensonhurst [Brooklyn, N.Y]. When are we going to see these things come about and come to pass?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, part of the problem is it’s an easy thing to look at a priority, to look at work that needs to be done and say, “Yeah, we ought to do that.” But when the next job is figuring out the how part, that’s where policy makers have often come up short because they’ve got a lot of dueling priorities, a lot of worthy things that need to get done, whether it’s schools, whether it’s securing downtown surface streets, whether it’s creating new highways, there’s a million things clamoring for a policymaker’s attention.

And if a canal, if a lock is operational today, if you’re able to get by with it today and it doesn’t need that infusion of cash, you figure, “Let’s just cross our fingers and hope that this hangs on till next year and we’ll put it in next year’s appropriations.” But if you do that through a couple of budget cycles, the bill starts to balloon as we’ll see later this week when I report from Boston on the Big Dig. One of the reasons the Big Dig became one of the most expensive civil engineering projects in American history is because it waited five or six extra years in order to be built, and during that time the cost ballooned.

STEVE GOLDBLOOM: When you watch and read the reports in this infrastructure series, there’s a sense of urgency behind what you’re talking about, whether it’s the roads in Pennsylvania or the Port of New Orleans, and it’s scary. But we hear and read more about the financial crisis and the sense of urgency to that situation. When are we going to hear more about this issue of infrastructure in America?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you see the signs of it all the time, like when part of I-95 was shut down. I-95, it’s a major artery of the United States. It’s the road that gets you from Boston all the way down to Florida. It’s part of the structural spine of the Eastern seaboard of the United States and around Philadelphia a chunk of it failed and all that traffic had to be diverted. That caused major, major tie-ups. You saw what happened in the Twin Cities when the bridge that carried I-35 West collapsed into the Mississippi River.

We’re getting wake-up calls from time to time about the attention, the kind of attention this is going to need, but no, it doesn’t capture our attention and it doesn’t capture our imagination the way that tens of millions of us are watching our potential retirements going down the toilet does. So yes, I mean, whether it’s water in the American west or in California, huge, huge structural problems there that have to be addressed. Whether it’s creating a new communications infrastructure for the 21st century as places like Portland and Seattle and other cities wonder about how to get wired. We have to make sure that those things are in our thinking every bit as much as the military and schools and the price of gas. It just has been an under-debated part of our set of responsibilities as a people.

STEVE GOLDBLOOM: Well, the debate continues here at the NewsHour, Wednesday, Thursday, and, I think Friday — I’m right about that?

RAY SUAREZ: Absolutely.

STEVE GOLDBLOOM: Continues all week. And if you miss it at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., you can check it out at the Online NewsHour. Ray, thanks a lot.

RAY SUAREZ: My pleasure.