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This image, of a suburb just north of where I live, was taken a couple of days after Chicago and other areas of the Midwest were deluged with rain. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Last night I came home to a recorded message explaining how to file for flood-related damages now that Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's declared Cook County a disaster area. Over the weekend, some areas of Chicagoland got 7 inches in 24 hours, filling basements to the ceiling. The owner of a building I used to work in plans to ask FEMA to condemn it and return it to the flood plain. It was built in the mid-1950s, when it never occurred to anyone — or no one cared — how the burgeoning western suburbs would one day affect the streams and creeks that wind through them.

Though infrastructure failures are rare, they're almost always spectacular. The next time residents are screaming for the heads of government officials and employees, try to remember how fast and how far you've advanced the nation's quality of life.

This continent has supported roughly four centuries of uninhibited, sometimes willy-nilly, growth. You've managed to alleviate the negative consequences of that growth in roughly four decades.

It's like we're in the final stages of a national infrastructure diet: The more overweight you are, the faster the pounds come off. But whether you're a little or a lot over your ideal weight, losing those final few pounds is murder. You can revise the goal, satisfied that what you've accomplished is good enough, and start the lifelong process of keeping it off; or you can push on to the finish. And then start the lifelong process of keeping it off.

The Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts are younger than I am (and probably a lot of you, too). In less than 40 years, we've cleaned up the worst messes and now, with stormwater, are wrestling with those final few pounds. That's a much more diffuse — and thus much more complicated — goal requiring cross-jurisdictional and cross-functional solutions. Similarly, tap water would be “safer” if we weren't constantly developing new drugs, and new ways to detect them in water supplies.

It's been 54 years since we pledged $25 billion (in today's dollars) to build an interstate highway system. Today, with the post-World War II menace of communism no longer hanging over our heads, we lack the motivation to revise the funding formula that spawned 41,000 miles of road and 55,000 bridges.

Do our regulatory and funding procedures always make sense?

No.
Are they fair?
Not always.
Should we consider revising some of the goals related to public works?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Could we do better?
Given the circumstances, I'm impressed we've done as much as we have, and continue to strive.

- Stephanie Johnston,
Editor in Chief