OLD ORCHARD BEACH — If you live on a street with a neighbor who has done little to keep up his house, pretty soon peeling paint may make the whole neighborhood seem to be going downhill.

If you own a car and you never change the oil or check the tires, how long will it be before you would find yourself calling a tow truck?

The next time you ride the highways of our great nation, look up at some of the bridge overpasses – our infrastructure is beginning to look like the house that has not been maintained.

Politicians are eager to tell us how government invests in various programs; the problem is that investments imply a monetary return. In the case of infrastructure, what the government spends comes in two parts: the original amount spent and the payment over time to keep the investment viable.

We have made the initial investment in our infrastructure by building a highway system that is probably the wonder of the world. However, we have neglected the second part of the equation: the upkeep.

Maintaining roads and bridges is not glamorous; it is always easy to postpone maintenance to balance budgets. This has been going on for years with many of our public buildings, and the result has been schools with mold and roofs that collapse.

Mechanical structures have a finite life. While you may notice the paint that is peeling, what you don’t see is even more dangerous.

Metal and concrete structures can fail because of excessive loading or the vibration and stress that come with regular use. Many of our highways were designed in the 1950s for the number and type of cars and trucks of the time.

These numbers have increased dramatically, and the usage has gone up accordingly. In addition, the cars of today, while much safer than those of the past, may be much heavier, given the introduction of the SUV as the family car.

We need to undertake a national effort to upgrade our infrastructure much like the space race of the 1960s. Engineers coming out of school today may want to work in the exciting fields that have brought us the smartphone and the Internet, but we need to build some excitement around construction and civil projects.

Think of how upset you would be if the infrastructure that makes your cellphone call possible suddenly was no longer available. The truth is we already have a crisis in transportation that is only going to get worse.

Roads and bridges are designed to have a finite useful life. When you exceed that useful life, failure can happen at any time. When excessive flexing of a metal structure occurs because of wear, fatigue failure can occur.

You can simulate this for yourself by taking a thin piece of metal and bending it back and forth many times. Eventually, the joint that is being bent will get hot and soon it will split. This is similar to what happens to a bridge joint that is constantly flexed day after day.

According to Policy Statement 208 of the American Society of Civil Engineers: “As of 2005, 156,335 of the nation’s 595,363 bridges, or 26.3%, were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, as compared to 34.6% of all bridges in 1992. However, despite this improvement, functionally obsolete or structurally deficient bridges on the nation’s transportation systems continue to constitute significant potential hazards which may jeopardize the safe, reliable, and efficient operation of these.”

It is going to take politicians who have the intestinal fortitude to propose funding these infrastructure improvements. A logical way to fund these projects would be to raise the federal gas tax to replenish the highway trust fund. This tax has been fixed since the early 1990s. With a new look to Congress and low gasoline prices, this may be the ideal time to make this change.

Lacking the initiative to do that, the government should turn the job of maintaining our critical infrastructure over to the private sector, possibly using toll charges. This will get government out of the infrastructure business entirely.

Doing nothing is not an option. This is not something we can put off. The clock is ticking. We cannot predict when the next bridge overpass will collapse, but we know that, without attention, it will. Do you want to be the last car over that bridge?