A Good Time To Spend Money on Infrastructure Repair

Water main break on Connecticut Avenue
Water main break on Connecticut Avenue

Photograph by Ryan Louis Cooper.

Last week I couldn’t buy a salad from my favorite office-proximate lunch spot because there was no water on the whole block due to a water main breakage. Ryan Cooper observes that we should expect more of this in the future:

Apparently the main was 65 years old, which is actually younger than the DC average of 77 years old. (In case you’re bad at math, that means the average pipe was put in in 1935.) Some DC pipes are even older, dating back to the 19th century. As you might expect, this isn’t the only time a pipe has burst—just by accident I found the story of another broken main in DC from earlier this month. Apparently, there are an average of 450 breaks a year. It’s a nationwide problem, of course, due mostly to neglect, which is only getting worse, because no one wants to pony up the money.

Stinting on adequate maintainance and upgrades of this sort of infrastructure is a classic case of false economy, where waiting for catastrophic failure is much more expensive than prudent management over the course of the life cycle. In a great column over the weekend, Larry Summers makes the point that the depressed economy and negative real interest rates on federal debt makes this a particularly opportune moment for “a stitch in time saves nine” thinking. Issuing a 10-year note at a negative real interest rate and using it to fix stuff up that will have to be fixed one way or another at some point in the next 30 years will massively improve the government’s long-term fiscal posture.