Infrastructure is the lifeblood not just of the American economy, but of American life. How much longer can we pretend it’s not a problem that it’s falling apart?
It’s no secret the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. Toledo’s water supply was discovered to be tainted with toxic algae on Aug. 2, and on July 31, Los Angeles endured a major water pipeline break in the Eagle Hill neighborhood two days after a rupture on Sunset Boulevard flooded the University of California, Los Angeles with more than 20 million gallons of water — all while California is in the midst of the worst drought in decades and water waste penalties are in place.
The nation’s critical services networks are old and increasingly falling into disrepair. According to the October 2013 assessment of the nation’s roads from TRIP, a national transportation research organization, 27 percent of the nation’s major urban roads “have pavements that are in substandard condition and provide an unacceptably rough ride to motorists.”
Per Transportation for America’s “The Fix We’re In For: The State of Our Nation’s Bridges 2013,” one in every nine bridges in the United States is structurally deficient or requires significant maintenance or replacement, and according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, there is a water main break every two minutes somewhere in the country.
“The ‘simple’ answer is that we have aging infrastructure. It takes money to repair and replace it,” Mark Hallenbeck, the director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, told MintPress News.
“But repair and replacement is really not politically salable to a public that is reluctant to pay for much of anything through taxes. It’s much easier to sell the public on ‘buying’ new infrastructure. So most new transportation tax measures are mostly about building new lanes, new roads and new transit services.”
Aging or not, the nation depends on its infrastructure. The nation’s road, waterway, electric and water grids, sanitation, railway, air corridor and public education systems are the engines that facilitate not only the American economy, but American life. However, as the fiscal climate tightened in the years after the Great Recession, the commitment to renovating or replacing key components of the nation’s infrastructure has waned. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the investment shortfall toward fully funding the maintenance of the infrastructure network is forecasted at $1.1 trillion by 2020 and $4.7 trillion by 2040.
Understanding the broken infrastructure
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a “report card” on the health of American infrastructure. For 2013, the group graded the system a “D+,” suggesting that the current system is in poor health but shy of a complete collapse. In particular, the body found that the U.S. fared differently for separate elements of infrastructure.
Roads: The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s roads a “D,” arguing that poor design and continuous repairs have left 42 percent of the nation’s major urban highways congested. This loss of productivity and wasted fuel results in $101 billion lost from the economy annually. While road quality had improved, and while $91 billion in capital investments are being made for road improvement each year, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion is needed annually to improve performance.
Hazardous waste: With 1,280 identified sites remaining in the National Priorities List and with an unknown number of potential sites yet to be identified, the $500 million budget shortfall for toxic site cleanup remains a politically charged concern. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that one in four Americans live 3 miles or less from a Superfund site. These issues led to a “D” rating for the nation’s treatment of hazardous waste.
Schools: While school enrollment is expected to climb for the rest of the decade, state and local investment in school building construction and teacher pay continues to shrink. With nearly half of all public school buildings in the U.S. being 50 years old or older, concerns about building safety continue to escalate. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that school construction spending in 2012 was half the pre-Great Recession levels. It is also estimated that it would take more than $270 billion to fully modernize the public school system. The schools were given a “D” on the report card.
Levees: According to a conversation between Carol Sanders of the National Committee on Levee Safety and MintPress, despite the fact that every state and the District of Columbia have levees, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers only controls 15 percent of the nation’s levee inventory. Because of this, there is no way to ascertain the quality or strength of the nation’s flood protection. While enactment of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 took some steps toward creating a national system for monitoring levee health, there remains no true methodology unifying all of the private parties involved in levee ownership toward creating a system to ensure floodwall integrity. It is estimated it would cost roughly $100 billion to bring all suspected problems with the levees to code. The flood protection system received a “D-.”
Water delivery: There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the U.S. With most of the water network consisting of pipelines laid in the first half of the 20th century, corrosion and rust are starting to take a toll. As with the gas delivery system, however, which also utilizes pipelines in excess of 50 years old, the cost to fully replace the water network could easily exceed $1 trillion. Additionally, an increasing rate of chemical spills into the water supply — for example, the Jan. 9 crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol spill into the Elk River in West Virginia — have shown an effective inability on the part of municipalities, regional authorities and private stakeholders to promptly deal with and control dangers that may manifest in the drinking water. Drinking water received a “D.”
Energy delivery: As with much of the national infrastructure, much of the nation’s current power grids were laid out during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House, with some of the distribution systems originating as far back as the 1880s. As the population grows and as new sources of energy become part of the national energy portfolio, the need for new lines will only expand. While investment in power distribution has increased since 2005, the pace of growth — compounded by weather issues and zoning problems — has not been able to keep up with demand. The energy grids received a “D+.”
Bridges: To completely bring all of the nation’s bridges up to code by 2028, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that $20.5 billion must be invested annually. $12.8 billion is the total that is currently being spent. With the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis and the 2013 I-5 bridge collapse in Washington state, the image of bridge failure is one that is inescapable. Efforts to extend the useful lives of bridges, however, have created situations in which the nation’s aging bridge inventory is regularly being pushed past its capacity. The nation’s bridges received a “C+.”
Challenges in addressing infrastructure deficiencies
While the problems facing the future of the nation’s infrastructure are easy to track, valid solutions toward resolving them are less obvious. For the most part, improvements to the infrastructure are perceived as economic concerns, instead of public safety concerns.
With much of the nation’s infrastructure in private hands, coordinating strategies to ensure public safety is a near-impossibility. For example, federal authority in ensuring that gas and oil pipelines are regularly checked and maintained by the pipeline operators amounts to a reactionary response following an accident. Federal regulatory agencies generally lack the manpower or funding to maintain regular reviews, and they typically rely on operators to inspect their own networks.
In areas that the government does have influence or responsibility in maintaining, such as the interstate highway system, conflicting ideologies and outmoded funding schemes complicate infrastructure spending. According to the Congressional Budget Office, for example, the Highway Trust Fund — the primary source of funding for the maintenance of the highway system — is expected to go bankrupt this year.
This is due to the fact that the gas tax — the source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund — has not changed from the 18.4 cents per gallon rate established in 1993. As new vehicles have better fuel economy, the per-mile revenue collected by the Highway Trust Fund decreases. In 2008, $34.5 billion in general tax revenues have been transferred to the Highway Trust Fund to compensate for the shortcoming.
Dealing with this shortcoming reflects the fatal flaw in infrastructure funding: It is subject to political whims. Prior to adjourning for the August recess, Congress agreed to the House Republicans’ $10.9 billion plan to supplement the Highway Trust Fund through May 2015. The House Republicans’ plan avoided the showdown that Senate Democrats wished to force after the mid-terms toward establishing a long-term plan for the Highway Trust Fund. The House’s plan was a response to the rejection of the president’s $302 billion four-year expansion of the fund.
Addressing the Highway Trust Fund issue placed the House Republicans in the untenable position of either greenlighting a major funding endowment during a time of austerity in government spending or raising the gas tax, which would be read as a violation of the Republican tenet to never support a raise in taxes for any reason.
“The general public hears ‘waste in government’ a lot — by people trying to get elected or that don’t like specific public programs,” said Hallenbeck, of the Washington State Transportation Center. “They hear ‘government just wants more money for bureaucrats’ — or they hear ‘no more taxes’ and ‘we pay enough taxes’ — and the system they use still works on a daily basis. So, it’s easy to ‘believe’ the naysayers. The economy still sucks for many people. After all, they turn on the tap and they get water. They drive down the road (basically for free) and get where they are going — so what’s the problem?”
Besides questions of funding priorities among governments that are still heavily indebted following the recent economic recovery (Figure 3), infrastructure repair and construction has grown to be a politically-charged issue with the potential to destroy political careers.
Thus, few politicians in recent years have been willing to take a stance on promoting infrastructure spending; the president’s 2009 stimulus package, which included $105.3 billion in infrastructure spending, was attacked by the Republicans, for example, and used as a campaign position in 2010 and 2012. In light of this lack of leadership, many have grown to perceive the infrastructure problem as not a problem at all or as one that can be resolved later.
“I don’t believe that the public is engaged enough to make Congress feel that this is ‘must-do’ business,” said Casey Dinges, senior managing director of the American Society for Civil Engineering, to MintPress. “While the transportation issues are very visible — a person may be stuck in traffic all the time or paid $500 to fix his car due to road conditions — the underground stuff is typically not thought about until there is a problem with the drinking water or the water is shooting out of the ground somewhere it shouldn’t be.”
Local and state government debt, compared to road construction. Per the U.S. Census Bureau, 90 percent of all infrastructure spending comes from non-federal governmental entities.
The cost of broken infrastructure
“Society must make a decision on how much it is willing to invest into its infrastructure and how much responsibility we feel for future generations,” said Dinges.
“I remember seeing a letter from the Institute of Medicine that said that it was the advent of modern water systems in the U.S. that did more to extend life and longevity in this country than any other measure,” he continued. “Infrastructure investments affect the lives of hundreds of millions — now and in the future.”
In practical terms, the cost of allowing the infrastructure to fail into disrepair is unthinkable. With just the surface transportation infrastructure allowed to decay at its current rate of deterioration, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that more than 876,000 jobs and $897 billion of the nation’s gross domestic product would be lost by 2020. Across the entire span of the nation’s infrastructure systems, the loss would be 3.5 million jobs, $2.4 trillion in consumer spending, $1.1 trillion in trade and $3.1 trillion to the GDP. This would amount to a $3,100 drop in personal disposable income per year.
With public construction spending at its lowest percentage of the GDP since 1993, questions on how to move forward remain difficult to answer. While the debate on whether new road construction should be paid for with new toll roads or if there should be a central infrastructure bank to pay for public projects is not likely to come to a conclusion soon, the danger of doing nothing and relying on ever-crumbling infrastructure is growing more difficult to ignore with each news story about a ruptured pipeline, a water main break or continuous gridlock on the roads.
“It’s clear that there is a collective interest in preserving the infrastructure,” said Dinges, “but there are grand disagreements in how to articulate this interest. It is difficult to get agreements on what exactly the responsibility to the infrastructure is or where it lies. Many of the private actors involved in the infrastructure debate would argue that there are no problems, that they have adequately met the needs of their part of the national infrastructure.
“Moving forward is a challenge, and the largest part of that challenge is just getting everyone involved to agree that the cost of moving forward is worth it in the end.”