A Bump (or two) in the Road


It’s taken a while to understand why the soccer Moms of suburban Washington DC prefer vehicles better suited for fording rivers in rural Montana than something more (literally) down to earth. But after a few months of navigating the streets of the nation’s capital I am also thinking of getting a Humvee.

Washington home to the government of the most powerful nation on earth is at ground level, a pockmarked mess. Venturing out in the car with Livvy and Edie to birthday parties, sports events, and school runs can be a bone-rattling experience, reminiscent of long ago road trips in Albania.

And it’s not just the roads that are in dire need of a makeover. Last year soon after arriving in the US, we were at a party and I ventured to get a glass of tap water. Attached to the top of the faucet was what looked like a bulbous hand-grenade. My host originally from Holland, explained that he had installed a filter on the tap because the water was unfit to drink from the source. The underground pipes he told me were so old and in such poor condition that the authorities had taken to regularly pumping in large amounts of chemicals to off-set the possibility of city-wide gastric upsets. While this made the water safe, he said it also made drinking it, akin to sipping from a swimming pool.

At the local hardware store, alongside the garden rakes, leaf blowers and cans of paint, there are generators of varying size and power lined up for sale. Initially I assumed they were for outdoor types who couldn’t do without a full electrify supply to power the necessities such as the flat-screen TV or Nespresso machine while away camping. But my first severe Washington winter, brought home their necessity in contending with the cocktail of unforgiving storms and inadequate infrastructure.

Unlike in Europe and elsewhere, power cables are not hidden away underground, but are strung spaghetti-like between wooden pylons along and across streets. Wires decorated with braids of vegetation wend their way between the limbs of the local trees, which while pleasant to look at also mean that when powerful winds blow through the neighbourhood, the electricity goes down with the power lines and snapped branches. Having been forced to sit at home in the cold and dark on a number of occasions this past winter, we went out and bought candles, flashlights, and a stack of blankets to ensure we were properly prepared for the wilds of urban life in the US. And while the overhead wiring is – like the roads – a reminder of less developed parts of the world, it is at least it is democratic – encompassing both DC’s comfy suburbs and the struggling inner-city neighborhoods.

In trying to understand how representative the DC area’s infrastructure is of the States as a whole, I stumbled across a 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It offered little solace, illustrating not only how common this situation is, but also the scale of the problem. The report which is carried out following a study every four years looks into the state of the nation’s roads, water, airports, dams and more. It concluded that the US’s grade point average for infrastructure had risen to – a D+! And that was the good news! The paper also reported that the grade for drinking water improved to a D, but with the addendum that, ’much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life’ with an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year. Replacing the old piping would cost $1 trillion according to the engineers. As for the roads, the report said that over two hundred million trips are taken daily across the nation’s deficient bridges, which have an average age of 42 years.

Having absorbed the findings I felt a sudden affinity with the survivalists of distant Idaho or elsewhere in seeking refuge from the perils wrought by the Washington. Although the danger comes less from an imaginary overactive Federal Government wanting to take over the lives of freeborn Americans, but more as a consequence of administrative dysfunction and neglect.

The problem with America’s infrastructure derives from a lack of public spending that has become hostage to one of Washington’s main pastimes – apart from sitting in traffic jams – political infighting. Government at all levels – local, state and federal – has become afraid of investing, for fear of being accused of squandering.

America underwent a huge phase of public spending and building from the 1950- 1970’s. But as the nation riches grew and mega-malls made their debut for eager shoppers, it seems that the consumer’s appetite to shell out for state-funded projects diminished. And here lies an uncomfortable fact of everyday life in the US – the juxtaposition of private wealth with public want.

It is easily illustrated by my local Mall – a shiny marble palace of designer labels, cosmetics, the latest in hi-tech electronics and much much more. But having pulled out of the Mall’s parking lot, reality bites in the form of the rutted road beyond its confines. What is unsettling from a foreign perspective is the disconnect between the over-abundance inside, compared with the paucity of the public spaces outside. And much like the bitter political and cultural divisions, this difference appears to be widening as money isn’t invested where it is most needed.

In the meantime I have taken to strapping the girls in with particular care into their car seats before heading out, and making sure their bottles contain only filtered water.

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