The infrastructure of the United States is a critical component of the lifestyle of its people, the smooth and seamless working of its economy, the national security of the nation and the general welfare of our entire society. Without its working infrastructure, the American dream soon turns into a nightmare. It is no wonder then that infrastructure has been front and center in the Executive and Legislative branches of our government.
When infrastructure is spoken of, most people automatically think of roads and bridges. That is not surprising since these are the things most visible to and most frequently noticed by average citizens. However, infrastructure also includes dams, rail and other transportation lines (for people and freight); electric, gas and water utilities; schools; sewer lines; tunnels; waterways; airports; energy distribution lines; wind-turbine farms; and so much more. We all use these facilities frequently, and we all depend on them – directly or indirectly – more than we can possibly know.
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We are so dependent on our infrastructure that when a portion of it figuratively crumbles the suffering of great swathes of people is not far behind. A case in point was the failure of the Texas power grid during frigid temperatures last winter. For our fellow citizens in Texas, the American dream-turned-nightmare became their reality that week. A White House position paper claims the “recent Texas power outages caused estimated losses of up to $90 billion for the state.” Losses like these are not sustainable indefinitely into the future, and serious investment into upgrading our infrastructure is the only way to minimize and curtail these losses in the long run.
To add some perspective to the infrastructural decline in the U.S., I would like to throw in a sampling of facts, by sector, as reported by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.
- Roads: America’s roads are critical for moving an ever-increasing number of people and goods. These vital lifelines are frequently underfunded, and over 40% of the system is now in poor or mediocre condition. As the backlog of rehabilitation needs grows, motorists are forced to pay over $1,000 every year in wasted time and fuel. Additionally, while traffic fatalities have been on the decline, over 36,000 people are still dying on the nation’s roads every year, and the number of pedestrian fatalities is on the rise. Federal, state and local governments will need to prioritize strategic investments dedicated to improving and preserving roadway conditions that increase public safety on the system we have in place, as well as plan for the roadways of the future, which will need to account for connected and autonomous vehicles.
- Schools: School facilities are the second-largest sector of public infrastructure spending, after highways, and yet there is no comprehensive national data source on K-12 public-school infrastructure. What data is available indicate that 53% of public-school districts report the need to update or replace multiple building systems, including HVAC. More than one-third of public schools have portable buildings due to capacity constraints, with 45% of these portable buildings in poor or fair condition. The best estimates indicate a minimum of $38 billion annual funding gap for public-school facilities across the country. Public schools often serve a secondary function as emergency shelters and community resource facilities during man-made or natural disasters, and facility upgrades are needed to effectively fulfill this important community purpose.
- Bridges: Of the more than 617,000 bridges across the U.S., 42% are at least 50 years old and 46,154, or 7.5% of the nation’s bridges, are considered structurally deficient (meaning in “poor” condition). A recent estimate for the nation’s backlog of bridge repair needs is $125 billion. We need to increase spending on bridge rehabilitation from $14.4 billion annually to $22.7 billion annually (58%) if we are to improve the condition.
- Transit: Public transit is essential to everyday living in communities across the country, providing access to jobs, schools, healthcare and other services. Unfortunately, much of the existing system is aging, and transit agencies often lack sufficient funds to keep their existing systems in good working order. Over a 10-year period across the country, 19% of transit vehicles and 6% of fixed guideway elements like tracks and tunnels were rated in “poor” condition. Currently, there is a $176 billion transit backlog, a deficit that is expected to grow to more than $270 billion through 2029. Failure to address the transit revenue shortfall will only exacerbate ridership declines as service cuts mean that trip delays and reliability issues become more frequent.
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Other sectors ASCE examines include aviation, broadband, dams, energy, ports, rail and many others. Even a casual reading of these summaries will yield recurring themes of decay, under-capacity, underfunding and neglect. These are trends that only the federal government has the resources and power to remedy and reverse.
We are entering a time in which, to lean on a musical metaphor from 1970, our bridges have become more troubled than the waters over which they span. My hope is that we can overcome the tribalism of our politics and that the White House and Congress can find a path forward toward infrastructural funding, renewal and remediation for the greater good of our country and the American people.