EDITORIAL: Will pothole swallow hamlet?

ANCRAM IS SUCH A PLEASANT COMMUNITY, it would be a shame if people couldn’t drop in for a visit. But as things look now, drivers headed this way soon might literally drop into… and beneath… the scenic hamlet.

The ground is shifting under their feet. Well, not under their feet so much as under their tires. As The Columbia Paper reported last week, a retaining wall that supports the roadbed for state Route 82 has developed a kind of public works hernia. It’s bulging in a way that suggests a sudden downpour might wash away the wall and the earth behind it, which supports the highway. This would dump it into the backyard of the old Simons General Store building, and the first 18-wheeler to drive over that spot would find itself quickly detoured toward China.

The problem came to the attention of town Supervisor Art Bassin three years ago and he alerted the state Department of Transportation. A year ago the DOT looked at the wall and concluded that by golly it does need to be repaired. This month a DOT engineer said her agency paid another visit to the wall and concluded, “it should be okay…” until a crew arrives to fix it in a “few weeks.”
For anyone who isn’t reassured by this, the engineer said that in the meantime the DOT will keep its eye on the problem.

Those who lost tires, exhaust systems or perfectly good teeth after hitting potholes on Routes 22 and 203 during the brutal winter just ended, may put little faith in promises from the DOT. After all, the road repair season is already half over. But the state agency is not necessarily dithering. More likely the DOT is engaged in triage–determining which problems are the worst and addressing them in some kind of orderly fashion. This is what happens when problems grow bigger than the resources available to solve them.

A couple of years ago the American Society of Civil Engineers released a report card of the nation’s infrastructure, breaking it down by state. It wasn’t a pretty picture. In New York, which has nearly 115,000 public roads, the society calculated that it costs us motorists $5.7 billion a year to drive on our roads, many of which desperately need repair. That works out to $505/year per motorist.

Who’s responsible for this? It would be easy to blame the state, but the facts get in the way. It’s easy to argue that the state doesn’t spend enough to fix all the roads and bridges that need repairs, but the current state budget includes $488 million for that purpose, what one state senator called a record amount. Of that money, $50 million was aimed at repairing road damage done last winter. Route 22 in New Lebanon was on a list of expedited projects released by the governor’s office.

Sadly, it was the only one in this county.

But if Albany isn’t at fault, then is Washington the infrastructure villain? That might be a stronger case to make if Congress continues playing its favorite game of deadline chicken. Federal transportation funding expires at end of this week and as this is written the House has passed a temporary extension while the Senate’s has a six-year plan. An impasse instead of compromise would threaten some road and bridge repairs for the rest of the summer, but if the House bill becomes law the whole dance will start all over again in a few months.

Ignoring this latest manufactured crisis in Congress, there’s general agreement that no matter how it’s measured, U.S. spending on our “capital stock”–all our infrastructure, including roads and bridges–has decreased in recent years and the trend shows no sign of ending. It may make us feel better to know that other major economic powers have the same problems, but this is not a race we want to win.

We have a choice. We can demand that all levels of government spend more to fix and upgrade the infrastructure we depend on. But to meet that demand means higher taxes, starting with the gas tax. And our political leaders remind us that we don’t elect people who say they will raise our taxes or ones who vote for tax hikes no matter what they say.

Hard to imagine, but the DOT does have bigger headaches than that crumbling wall in Ancram. They’re shared by all of us who drive and are old enough to vote.

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