The ghost of Grover Cleveland strikes Philly again

2015-06-14-West-Philly-water-main
A water main break in West Philadelphia early Sunday morning continuing to cause chaos for residents.

Curse you, Grover Cleveland! For the second time in the last couple of years, the ghost of America's 22nd Democratic president (famous for also becoming America's 24th president, and also as the subject of "Ma, ma, where's my pa...gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha" -- Google it) has appeared to wreak havoc on Philadelphia, which was a national Republican stronghold in the 1880s.

Cleveland's mid-1880s was nearly as technologically primitive as "Gilligan's Island" -- few phones, gaslights, no motorcars, and not many luxuries except for those flaunted by a few titans of a rising Gilded Age. But the Industrial Revolution was at its steepest ascent, and labor conflict like the explosion in Chicago's Haymarket Square was arguably at its peak. Massive public works like the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883, and a national rail network were a sign of a kind of American exceptionalism, a surging world power that knew how to build things.

Today, America is exceptional as a nation that doesn't want to fix things.

You may remember a year half ago when cars from a potentially explosive oil train derailed and dangled from the Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge, a crossing that was built in 1886, or the middle of Cleveland's first term.) This morning, it was a 36-inch water main -- constructed and laid down in 1885 -- that made itself known to residents of 52nd Street in West Philadelphia at roughly 4:30 a.m. It was a rude awakening -- a rupture that spewed millions of gallons of water into a residential neighborhood, flooded a number of homes and (based on my interpretation of the photo at the top of this post) caused the Parking Authority to write a ticket to someone because his car is now parked at a 45-degree angle.

They should have seen this coming. No, seriously, they should have; experts say the viability of water mains installed in the late 1800s is about 120 years, so the infrastructure in West Philly was a good 10 years past its due date. And it's not unique. Somewhere under Philadellphia's aging network of pipes there's supposedly a water main that dates to 1824! But then, a lot of the city's water system is older than City Hall or the Mummers' Parade, which both came on line at the turn of the 20th Century.

That doesn't mean the city's Water Department is poorly run. To the contrary, by most accounts Philadelphia is now a leader in detecting leaks -- a huge problem in such an ancient system -- and even after the Great Recession it was replacing about 18 miles of older pipe (out of a 3,100-mile system) every year. It's just so much more is needed.

In 2011, the American Society of Civil Engineers said that America needed to spend $69 billion (with a "b") to bring water systems up to 21st Century standards. But what little work takes place remains larely local and piecemeal; since 2010, the Republicans who initially used the filibuster and who now control both houses have stymied any national bill to fix infrastructure, with hundreds of thousands of retained and new jobs in the balance.

What is Washington waiting for? Grover Cleveland's third term? We've all heard the logic of the anti-infrastructure crowd -- that government taxes people too much, that the bureaucrats needs to get out of the way and let the magic invisible hand of the free market do its work. Of course, the myth of the private "job creator" is exactly that, a myth. Tasked with creating shareholder value and keeping payrolls lean and (literally) mean, most captains of 21st Century business wouldn't hire one extra body even if you cut their taxes to zero. But rebuilding bridges and installing water mains in the United States for the public good can't be outsourced to Taiwan; it's a good domestic source of decently paying blue-collar jobs.

It gets even crazier, because many businesses are more likely to move to where there's good infrastructure than to where they can get a slightly better deal on taxes. Instead, failure to fix roads and bridges and water mains is becoming a symbol of a national moral rot that makes the rusty innards of a 130-year-old pipe look pristine in comparison. True, our political leaders don't always spend money wisely, but what could be more foolish than not replacing water lines from the time of the horse and buggy? If you're naive enough to believe otherwise, I'd like you to check out this deed that I'm selling for ownership of the Brooklyn Bridge.