What $1 trillion buys

Photo of Jones Falls in Baltimore by Scott Tong of Marketplace.
Photo of Jones Falls in Baltimore by Scott Tong of Marketplace.

A promo Wednesday for the Public Radio International program, Marketplace, did its job.

I was driving, reached my destination and missed the story, but the nugget of news the promo promised stuck: That it will cost $1 trillion to replace all of the nation’s aging sewer pipes, according to at least one estimate.

Later, when I was at a computer, I found the story and listened to it. It focused on Baltimore, which is spending $1.5 billion to replace and rebuild sewer pipes, the oldest of which are made of wood and clay. That’s money Baltimore doesn’t have, according to the story, because it:

  • Has lost 300,000 taxpayers and sewer users in a generation
  • Never historically charged enough for waste-water treatment and didn’t budget enough for maintenance
  • Can no longer access federal grants for this kind of work because that source of funding dried up years ago.

So the city has no choice but to raise rates. A typical quarterly combined water and sewage bill has gone from $62 in 2000 to $201 today.

The increase is 136 percent more than the old rate when adjusted for inflation over the past 15 years.

Some may read this — especially if they happen to be Republicans — and say it’s the government’s fault. After all, Democrats have held the mayor’s office in Baltimore 15 times for a total of 94 of the past 115 years. That roster of Democrats includes Sheila Dixon, Baltimore’s first female mayor. She was convicted in 2009 on a misdemeanor embezzlement charge and agreed to resign.

So, of course, those corrupt Democrats are to blame for the mismanagement. And don’t forget, President Obama is a Democrat and the federal government is contributing to the problem by imposing clean water deadlines on cities such as Baltimore.

In my town, city leaders are spending millions to comply with the same federal mandates.

But I’m pretty sure the time bomb of an aging sewer system is ticking in most American cities. It was an issue more than 20 years ago in Ottumwa, Iowa, when I worked there as a young newspaper reporter. I remember putting on an oxygen tank and a mask to tour a century-old crumbling storm sewer made of brick. The city was trying to persuade voters to approve a local-option sales tax increase in order to pay for replacing the sewer. The tax increase didn’t pass and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ottumwa still hasn’t replaced that crumbling sewer line.

All of this brings me back to that figure of $1 trillion. That’s a lot of money, no doubt about it. But is it really?

0053_defense-comparison-cropIn 2013, the most-recent year for which audited numbers are available, the United States spent $640 billion on military spending, down 10.5 percent from the previous year. But it’s still more than the combined military spending of the world’s next eight-leading nations.

If you look at that and conclude the federal government’s spending priorities are messed up, I’d challenge you to also look in a mirror.

I don’t know if the United States really needs to spend $640 billion on its military. But I don’t think Americans really need to spend $16.5 billion on lattes and cappuccinos. That’s how much revenue Starbucks Corp. reported for its most-recent fiscal year, which ended Sept. 28, 2014. The company’s revenue increased 10 percent over its total for 2013.

That’s a lot of coffee. So much coffee, as a matter of fact, that if everyone saved the money we’re spending at Starbucks, there would be a pool of $1 trillion in 60 years, which may sound like a long time, but it’s fewer years than it took for the nation’s sewers to go to crap — pun intended.

Let’s just say, based on our actions, it’s better to drink too much coffee — a known diuretic — than it is to spend money on adequately cleaning our waste water. But, hey, what’s a little dysentery among friends?

Our priorities are just simply … well, never mind. I won’t go there.