Deferred maintenance is always an expensive proposition. Whether you’ve waited too long to replace your brakes, or your state waited too long to replace its dams, the bill will always be far more than if you’d just stayed current with the upkeep.
Deferred maintenance now defines us as a country. As if the Covid crisis weren’t straining all systems to the breaking point, the cans we have kicked down the road keep piling up unattended. Paying for them will be a crucial issue for the next few generations.
Michigan, my adopted state, is a poster child for deferred maintenance.
The same state that brought you the poisoning of Flint’s water. The same state where the current governor was elected with the slogan “Fix the Damn Roads.”
This time it’s our dams making the news. Two weeks ago, the Edenville dam in Midland burst, destroying another dam downriver, wrecking thousands of homes, and stranding thousands of families. In the middle of a pandemic.
The dam was notoriously fragile. Its owners had ignored federal orders to upgrade for years. In 2018, their license was revoked, leaving the state responsible for operation and maintenance. The dam was known to be a lit fuse, and everybody — federal, state, local, private — knew it could go off at any time.
Now, facing billions in lawsuits from displaced homeowners and businesses, Michigan taxpayers could be on the hook for any settlements handed down. Add that to our Covid bill, and I’m guessing our roads won’t be fixed any time soon.
And that’s just one dam in one state. Every state has the same infrastructure issues. Every state has bridges, tunnels, roads, dams, water, and sewage systems in some state of disrepair, just waiting for that perfect moment to fail.
It seems to be in our nature — either as Americans or possibly as human beings — to wait until there’s significant loss of life before we pay attention to these things. But it’s just a matter of time before infrastructure failure becomes an everyday occurrence. Deferred maintenance will come back to haunt us, one way or another.
And infrastructure problems don’t exist in a vacuum. All too often, they intersect with environmental issues. That same dam collapse in Midland sent flood waters through a Superfund area where the soil was already deeply contaminated from decades of dumped chemicals, courtesy of Dow’s Midland headquarters. The cleanup there was already a long and expensive process before the flooding. Now, even if people can somehow rebuild their homes, will the added carcinogens be worth it?
And just as the failure of infrastructure will inevitably ripple through the environment, the reverse is also true: As temperatures and water levels both rise, the strain on infrastructure will get far worse. Miami is already leading the way on that one.
The virus is shining a harsh light on all sorts of vulnerabilities that are fast becoming life-threatening. Our states are still waiting desperately for help from the federal government, even as our cities and counties wait desperately for help from the states. Clearly, we’ll be waiting until at least next year. And then don’t hold your breath.
Because as precarious as our infrastructure has become, the clear and present danger of the virus will assure an even longer delay in addressing it. Deferred maintenance will remain deferred until something ugly happens to remind us. And even then, action won't be guaranteed.