Wake Up, Congress: Create Jobs, Fix Our Crumbling Infrastructure

John Ostenburg

By John A. Ostenburg
The Outpost Observer

It wasn’t that many years ago that “infrastructure” wasn’t a part of our everyday vocabulary.

As the nation grew, government put more and more money into roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, school buildings, parks, and other public facilities. The need was there, and so funds were appropriated to meet that need. Citizens just took it for granted that government would continue this course long into the future.

Perhaps a highpoint in modern improvements of this type was the interstate highway system created during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. By the late 1950s, nearly every family in America had at least one automobile, post-World War II families were prosperous enough to take regular vacations, many individuals had re-located from their original place of residence to elsewhere in the U.S. because of a job or to advance their educations, and so the President proposed a highway system to accommodate that kind of travel and he got bipartisan support in Congress to fund it.

In the years since the creation of the interstate highway system, however, not a whole lot of attention has been focused on what we now refer to as infrastructure.

During the administration of President John F. Kennedy, attention went in the direction of creating an advanced space system. During the Lyndon Johnson years, the Great Society program focused on funding social needs, and at the same time a large portion of American tax dollars went to fund fighting in Vietnam. Richard Nixon’s administration continued the war funding, and then got so caught up in Watergate problems that little else gained much attention. The administration of Gerald Ford was too brief to accomplish much; Jimmy Carter’s term in office was consumed with the developing oil crisis; Ronald Reagan thought the best use for federal dollars was his “Star Wars” missile program; George H.W. Bush got caught up in the war thing too with Desert Storm.

Bill Clinton managed to bring some level of fiscal responsibility back to the federal government but the Monica Lewinsky scandal of his administration was the catalyst for much of the partisan bickering that today has become commonplace in the nation’s capitol. George W. Bush was able to reverse some of that and gain bipartisan support when the country went into crisis mode after the September 11, 2001, attack by Al-Qaeda, but that cooperative spirit dissipated as he led America into two prolonged wars and then oversaw the collapse of the U.S. economic system.

So now we are three years into the administration of Barack Obama, suffering from the most devastating financial conditions the nation has faced since the Great Depression, and suddenly coming face-to-face with the reality that everything structurally holding up our country is coming apart and collapsing around us. It’s the worst of all worlds: we finally are recognizing that we need to spend money to fix things at the same time that money is tighter than it has been in decades.

Even complicating matters more is the fact that partisanship in Washington, D.C., has reach its zenith. At one of the most crucial times in our nation’s history, a large segment of our elected representatives is so consumed with the goal of defeating a President of the opposite party that it will not allow anything that he proposes to be successful.

The President’s jobs bill will put Americans to work improving our crumbling infrastructure. It’s a twofer: it attacks the current high unemployment rate at the same time that it makes the necessary improvements to return soundness to our infrastructure. But his opponents would rather see all those Americans remain unemployed, and see our infrastructure crumble, just so the voters will deny Barack Obama a second term in office come November 2012. It’s not a matter of public policy; it’s a matter of absurdity.

In Park Forest, our water and sewer lines are a disaster. It’s likely that we will see an all-time one-year high of almost 200 water-main breaks before the end of 2011. It costs the Village of Park Forest $1 million for every mile of water-mains that is replaced, and there are approximately 72 miles of water-mains in the town. Park Forest definitely could use some federal assistance to improve our infrastructure.

In Cook County, 675 bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. That’s 24 percent of all Cook County bridges. Cook County definitely could use some federal assistance to improve its infrastructure.

Will County has 144 bridges that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. That’s 20 percent of all bridges in Will County. Will County definitely could use some federal assistance to improve its infrastructure.

Both Cook County and Will County have unemployment rates that exceed 9 percent. Cook and Will County residents definitely could use the jobs the President’s proposal would create.

So why is Congress dragging its feet on the jobs bill? When are the partisan lawmakers in Washington going to wake up to the realities and stop their childish games?

I just returned from the National League of Cities Congress of Cities in Phoenix where I heard speaker after speaker address lack of jobs and crumbling infrastructure as major needs of our nation’s municipalities. Without adequate employment, more and more residents of our cities, towns, and villages are losing their homes. Local government is forced to spend increasing amounts of local tax dollars to deal with the problems associated with abandoned and foreclosed homes. Property values of other residents of those communities decrease as the abandoned and foreclosed homes fall into disrepair and cause blight in neighborhood after neighborhood. It’s a major problem nationwide, and jobs are the solution.

In communities such as Park Forest, residents are forced to pay increasing amounts on water and sewer bills in order to replace the mains that are crumbling. Those are the very infrastructure problems that President Obama is seeking to correct through his jobs bill, with funding going directly to local communities to make the necessary improvements. These are jobs that cannot be outsourced. They will employ local residents in solving local problems.

The examples of how the jobs bill will provide relief for local communities are legion. Yet, partisan politics are preventing the solution from going into effect. It’s time for citizens across the country to insist that politicians in Washington put aside their private agendas and instead focus on the needs of the people.

Unless something is done soon about the decline of America’s infrastructure, more bridges are going to collapse, more school buildings are going to be declared unsafe for our children, more roads and highways are going to be virtually impossible to use, and more and more water and sewer lines are going to break. This is a situation that no longer can be put off. It’s a crisis. Amazingly, Washington found adequate dollars to enter into a questionable war in Iraq. Why can’t Washington find the dollars to help our cities?

For more information on what’s happening to the U.S. infrastructure, and on the solutions that are needed, visit the Building America’s Future website at

John A. Ostenburg is in his fourth four-year term as mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He retired in July 2010 as the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union after holding various CTU posts over a 15-year period. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he also has been a teacher and/or administrator at elementary, secondary, community college, and university levels. E-mail him at [email protected].