Obviously, a lot has been said about the city of Flint’s water crisis in the past few weeks. More eloquent people than me – most notably the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s Curt Guyette – have spent days, weeks, and months chronicling the human cost of this issue and the government’s resulting responses addressing it.
As the story continues to unfold and more details surface, the fingers will continue to point and discussions will center around who knew what when. Resignations will be tendered, testimony will be given, and careers will be shattered, all while the people of Flint pay a high price.
The real cost of this crisis in Flint is immeasurable at this point. At minimum, the city and state will likely need to swallow a $2 billion tab to eventually replace the city's entire water system. With all of the talk of corrosion and leaching lead from pipes, you know that’s the ultimate fix here for the city – replacing every pipe from water source to faucet. If this were your home, that’s what a plumber would recommend – the only difference here is larger diameter municipal tubes.
That pricetag completely discounts the long-term health care costs of treating thousands of people with long-term damage from the result of persistent lead in their bloodstreams, and the associated education and mental health dollars that should rightly accompany it.
But this is bigger than government at all levels failing its citizenry. This is about us.
Nearly a hundred years ago, our grandparents’ generation set about the task of building the infrastructure that made this country once the envy of the world. They spent hundreds of millions of public and private dollars – billions in today’s market – to build remarkable feats of engineering like highways, bridges, public water systems, public utilities, schools, parks, and other buildings that supported the public good.
They invested in themselves – and in their children, and in their children’s children.
And all they expected us to do was maintain these marvels – repairing things when they needed them and upgrading innovation when required.
But their children and grandchildren have utterly failed their legacy. Why? Because our leaders have been unwilling to invest the real dollar it would actually take to solve long term infrastructure challenges for a simple reason – political expediency.
To be elected to the State Legislature in many parts of this state, candidates must be willing to sign a no-tax pledge that they are held to by conservative organizations, many of whom are backed by corporate and private sector interests.
Last year, lawmakers did their best – under the gun of this pledge – to invest
resources to address Michigan roads, a long-term $1.2 billion commitment. The money, however, isn’t going to start being collected until 2017 and won’t be fully in swing until 2021.
Yet, they will claim in campaign literature coming to your mailbox this year – sent around November 2016, naturally – that they solved a long-term problem in Lansing. They won’t tell you the whole truth – a complete fix of our roads would cost taxpayers an estimated $7 billion to really address. It’s really a drop in the bucket and, in the meantime, local governments are left to their own devices to fix their local roads.
If you suggested building the Mackinac Bridge today, leaders in the public and private sectors would laugh in your face. Private industry would create dozens of redundant ferry systems designed to carry cars and trucks across the Straits, and public officials would whine about the cost.
And that’s just one project. The concept of building an intrastate roads system from scratch today, as a larger example, would give most federal lawmakers the vapors.
Flint is the canary in the coalmine from an infrastructure point of view. Dozens of municipalities across the state are facing similar aging systems with no money set aside to fix them.
Unless our leaders are willing to get serious, check their politics at the door, and invest real dollars in our communities to repair and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, the Flint crisis could be the least of our problems.