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Snapshots of a Crisis

A contest to capture pictures of the sorry state of the nation's infrastructure should push us to get our priorities in focus.

September 19, 2004

Here's a chance to put that new digital camera to work. The American Society of Civil Engineers is offering cash prizes for photos that capture the sorry state of the nation's infrastructure. California would seem a sure bet to sweep the "Postcards From the Edge" competition, given that our highways are being pounded to dust, our energy system is prone to meltdowns and no one really knows where tomorrow's water will come from.

Unfortunately, California merely reflects a nation where photo opportunities are endless. Californians bicker over who should pay for a $5.1-billion seismic retrofit of the Bay Bridge, but a third of New York's bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. It's big news in a dry state when a levee breaks on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, but Texans live near 851 high-hazard dams where a failure would probably lead to loss of human life. Heather Locklear has her hands full at gate- and runway-challenged LAX, but even Wonder Woman would be hard pressed to fix the nation's largest airport (Chicago O'Hare), where just 70% of flights depart on time.

At least $1.6 trillion (up from $1.3 trillion two years ago) is needed to put the nation's sewage treatment plants, filtration plants, highways and airports in safe, working order. The meter continued to run through the booming 1990s, when Americans concentrated on their own material assets, amassing wealth for themselves while not spending it on the community. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith framed that dichotomy in his book "The Affluent Society" as "private opulence and public squalor." He wrote about "the family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour" and "passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground."

Today that family's SUV would idle in a traffic jam on the 710 Freeway, where diesel-induced illness is a fact of life.

They might pass one of the nearly 70 emergency rooms that have shut down statewide in the last decade. And if they drove through San Diego, they might wonder why, four months after a wildfire killed 16 people and destroyed 3,200 structures, the locals defeated four of seven ballot measures to improve fire protection.

Americans like wide-open freeways and uncrowded airports, but they don't like to pay for them, and they certainly don't like them in their neighborhoods. Hence plans to modernize LAX remain in a decade-long holding pattern. Badly needed highway projects are stalled. Levees and the mains that carry our water are crumbling.

The comfortable family in Galbraith's imaginary sedan eventually questions the "curious unevenness of their blessings." Southern Californians could be doing the same.

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