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Roads and sewers aren't sexy, but they need our attention

Jack Lessenberry

Back during the Great Depression, some radicals were strongly against helping starving people at all. They believed that when only their condition was so bad and so hopeless and they couldn’t stand it anymore, they would finally revolt and bring about a new society.

That never happened, of course, in part because the New Deal kept people alive and gave them hope in the future. For a long time, I thought the idea that you could get people to do the right thing only by making them suffer terribly was heartless.

Now, I am not so sure. Common sense has proven to be particularly uncommon. For years, we have heard politicians tell us that we are overtaxed, and we’ve happily backed politicians who refuse to make necessary infrastructure improvements.

We have been shortchanging things like roads and sewers for years, even when we’ve had the money. My theory is this happened partly because fixing plumbing isn’t sexy.

If politicians spend millions on a gleaming new building, they have something they can brag about.

Nobody ever thinks about water and sewer mains, till they break, or potholes, till we suffer a broken axle.

Then, maybe we begin to get it.

In case you hadn’t noticed, this is turning out to be the worst winter Michigan has had in nearly 30 years. And the unrelenting cold and massive pileup of snow is giving the final shove to roads and pipes we have neglected to maintain.

Detroit in particular has been plagued with a series of water and sewer main breaks. Yesterday, a huge, 30-inch pipe broke on the Southwest side, flooding a whole square mile.

Officials appeared not to know exactly, but that pipe may be a century old. Some of the water and sewer pipes beneath the city’s streets date back to the nineteenth century. They should have been upgraded or replaced long ago. This is everyone’s fault.

There have been more than 100 serious water main breaks in Detroit so far this winter, and others in surrounding older suburbs. Meanwhile, power outages in at least 30 Detroit schools have kept kids home for dozens of days this winter.

The reason is, again: more and more pressure on aging infrastructure, plus poor quality of power supply from the wretched Detroit Public Lighting Department.

Meanwhile, for the last two years, the Legislature has steadily refused the governor’s pleas to do something about the condition of our roads. They have refused, and this year, Rick Snyder really isn’t even trying. Some say the political will to fix the roads hasn’t been there yet, and that maybe this brutal winter would do the trick.

Well, maybe the only way to get people to see the light is through suffering, after all. But leadership doesn’t consist of telling people what you think they want to hear.

What I’d like to hear is both parties tell us they are going to raise our taxes to fix our roads, sewers and power plants before the network of civilization falls apart, and then give us a choice of how to pay for it. Because we are going to pay, like it or not.

And we will suffer more and pay more the longer we wait.

How, and when, we face reality is up to us.

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