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If opportunity knocks, will county hear?

December 14, 2008

You never see the word "infrastructure" anymore, without it being preceded by the word "crumbling: America's crumbling infrastructure. Some of it may be crumbling, as bridges bump up against their life expectancies and highways fray at the edges. It might even explain why, in Washington County, macadam has been replaced by tar and chip.

But "inadequate" infrastructure may be more accurate, and it extends well beyond road surfaces. Allegheny Energy's proposed PATH transmission line highlights the fact that the electrical grid is severely behind the times. Capacity is all but maxed out now, not to mention what it will be in the future as we move away from oil and toward electricity to meet our energy needs.

And there are troubles below ground as well. The time was, you could hardly drive 20 miles or so in any populated part of the country without witnessing the aggressive laying of sewer pipe through one neighborhood or another. Today, spare sewer capacity is at a premium and - in Hagerstown at least - rainwater is leaking into old sewer lines, which unnecessarily diminishes capacity even further.

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As bombs and bailouts have plunged the nation into unthinkable debt in this infant millennium, it begs this rather sickening question: What benefits, what tangible items have these hundreds of millions of dollars provided us with?

The answer, of course, is not much.

When President-elect Obama talks of a national plan to rebuild our infrastructure, it calls to mind the CCC camps of Roosevelt's New Deal, which built dams, planted trees, graded roads and improved parks. Fort Frederick is one of Washington County's more lasting and visible monuments to the work of the CCC.

At this point, there hasn't been much concern for what Obama's infrastructure plan could ultimately cost. When you're already carrying a $20,000 balance on the credit card, what's another $800 for a new TV, I suppose. There's a nagging sense that we can't afford more spending of monumental proportions - but there is also a more urgent sense that the economy must be fixed and that worrying about the debt is for another day.

At least, presumably, this time we would have something to show for our money. And if this initiative does come to fruition, it would pay to be ready.

That's why it was heartening last week to hear Commissioners President John Barr urge that several county projects be fast-tracked so they are ready to go, should federal dollars be forthcoming.

As Barr mentioned, a key point of Obama's plan is to get people to work immediately, which likely means that projects that are still in the study and planning and philosophical phases will be left behind.

So even if there is no state or local funding at the moment for road projects such as the county's share of Eastern Boulevard the Funkstown Bypass, or interstate expansion, it might pay in spades to have the spades for these projects at the earth-shoveling ready.

And why think small? The much-discussed but little-acted-upon connecting road from Eastern Boulevard across the Antietam Creek to Robinwood Drive would be a worthy candidate.

And the City of Hagers-town might turn its eye to the problematic remains of the City Light plant. Energy is going to be a key part of Obama's plan - might this building somehow be converted into a next generation of energy producers? The city could also nominate its aforementioned sewer pipes for an upgrade.

And speaking of pipes, it might be wise to run a pipeline to our congressional delegation, reminding it in no uncertain terms that we remember being shut out of the federal highway funding bill a few years back, and that we would take a dim view of a repeat should another round of infrastructure dollars come rolling through congressional hallways.

But, as Barr says, the best chance we have is to be aggressive and be prepared. It will be crucial to be ready to build and ready to hire - which, after all, is the main point of a jobs program.

To do less would be to shortchange the community of a chance at progress and to shortchange many of our people who are in desperate need of work.

Tim Rowland is

a Herald-Mail columnist.

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