America's Crumbling Infrastructure

This month, we begin a series focusing on the state of America's infrastructure. Historian Robert Fishman of the University of Michigan has written extensively about the role national planning played when this country.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Today we begin a month-long series of America's aging infrastructure. From roads to sewer systems to dams, experts warn that America may be heading into a crisis in the next decade if there aren't some major overhauls. In Portland, Oregon, officials are worried that hundreds of fire hydrants are nearly a century old. In New York State, a cracked 70-year-old tunnel created a marsh the size of a football field.

And in Minneapolis, an eight-lane steel bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed last year, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others.

Unidentified Man: You can hear bridge structure wavering, moving, creaking. It's not a pleasant sound and, you know, the divers certainly take notice of that.

CORNISH: After the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, musicians from around the world collaborated on a benefit album, "Musicians from Minneapolis," to raise money for the victims of the disasters. The 57 songs range from indie rock to reggae to folk.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I had joy and I was strong and I was good at holding on. And I had heart and I had soul and if I wanted to I could even make it small anytime...

CORNISH: At (unintelligible) some government officials and philanthropists have been speaking out about aging infrastructure.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): The numbers - 160,000 bridges in this country today - are in need of either immediate repair or maintenance or some amount of it in order to head of these kinds of disasters that we saw occur in Minnesota.

CORNISH: That's Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska on this show in August of 2007.

Sen. HAGEL: And it's not just bridges. It's roads, of course, it's drinking water systems, it's waste water systems. It's our entire framework of infrastructure in this country that's aging and is going to require a tremendous amount of funding to maintain it and that does not even include what we're going to need to enhance our infrastructure to keep us not only safe but productive Americans.

CORNISH: We begin our series in the past. We turn to someone who has written extensively about the role national planning played in shaping this country's development. Robert Fishman is an historian at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to the show.

Mr. ROBERT FISHMAN (Historian, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor): Hello.

CORNISH: Now, when did we first see a cohesive national planning policy in this country?

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, I think it goes back to George Washington himself who understood even before the Constitution that we somehow needed a way to create a national transportation system that would get over the Allegheny Mountains and unite the whole country.

CORNISH: And so is he considered the father of infrastructure in the United States or does that title fall elsewhere?

Mr. FISHMAN: Oh, yeah, he's the father of a whole lot of things. And he's definitely the father of infrastructure. The real plan had to wait until 1808, exactly 200 years ago, and it was Jefferson's secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, who put together a national coordinated plan for roads and canals to unite the country as Washington had hoped.

CORNISH: How did the plan work? In a nutshell, what was it?

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, the great difficult was somehow getting over the Allegheny Mountains. The whole really aim was somehow to create a series of canals that would take boats over the Allegheny, connect to the Ohio River and to the whole Mississippi River system. At the same time there are a series of roads and canals going north-south to connect the older parts of the country.

CORNISH: Now, how did all this infrastructure planning actually change the country? And by that I don't just mean, you know, getting us from one play to another but how did it affect things culturally?

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, I think it created the country. When you think about - I mean, think about the incredible task of spanning a continent of uniting this vast area into one country, into one economy. This was inconceivable without conscious national planning at the larger scale.

CORNISH: Do you think our founding fathers were thinking about not just the creation of infrastructure but its possible maintenance for the future?

Mr. FISHMAN: Yes, there clearly was. The roads and canals are going to pay for themselves initially through the sale of the federal land. But after that they would become the responsibility of the federal government. And this was, I think, always understood. Gallatin was a great economist and he understood that maintenance was at least as important as initial investment.

CORNISH: Do you think that's understood today?

Mr. FISHMAN: Much less so. There's just a sense that we can get by on the minimum cutting back privatization. All of these things are really undermining the massive investment that we have made over 200 years through these national plans.

CORNISH: And so at this point in our history we're looking at some major infrastructure problems that have been affecting the U.S. And what do you think the founding fathers would advise at this point?

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, as I say, the Constitution in many ways is a charter for national planning. It calls for a national vision. The vision today, I think, obviously, is the vision of sustainability of somehow adjusting our whole lives, our whole society to the crises that are coming.

CORNISH: Robert Fishman is a historian at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He joined us from our New York bureau. Robert Fishman, thank you so much for talking to us about this.

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, thank you.

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