Greg Brecht Once upon a time there was a country with huge resources and an enterprising population. This place had the world’s largest and best highway system.
It had invested huge resources in dams, transportation, city infrastructure, waterworks and all the characteristics that make a nation technologically modern. There was a pervasive sense of the importance of government investing tax money into projects aimed at the public good. Then the country shifted investments to other things, such as a war in Southeast Asia. Investment in the system was minimal and expense to maintain it was begrudged. The general approval of government investing in projects for the public good changed to one of increasing suspicion of government and deep suspicion of the idea of the public good.
That wonderful highway system and all the rest of the infrastructure aged, slowly accumulating wear and tear, and much of it has grown old enough to retire. That nation would be the United States. We created an infrastructure that sustained remarkable growth for fifty years. Now, the infrastructure is being overwhelmed by growth, and it needs fixing. The technological wonders of fifty and sixty years ago are becoming old and rickety.
A number of nations are increasingly concerned with modernizing infrastructure. China, for example, is investing heavily in infrastructure that is well planned both for citizen benefit and for economic advantage. Other nations often currently praised for excellent infrastructure include Singapore, Japan, Germany, France, Switzerland and Spain. One thing to note about most of these nations is that the United States is far, far bigger. The United States is almost as large as all the European nations combined. Texas, for example, is larger than France, California is larger than Japan and Montana is larger than Germany.
The point is that the immensity of the United States means that the infrastructure is immense and that the cost of bringing it up to 21st century standards will also be immense. The influential American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) every four years issues a “report card” on the state of the national infrastructure. The 2017 report card graded the infrastructure D+ overall. The highest graded of the 16 categories were a B for rail, a C+ for bridges, a C+ for ports and a C+ for solid waste. The remaining 12 were graded from D- to D+.
We do spend money on infrastructure, a lot of it, some $400 billion a year, but that is not nearly enough. ASCE estimates that the cost to repair American infrastructure will be $4.6 trillion.
Other estimates are lower, but it seems clear that the cost will be several trillion. In 2016, ASCE came out with Failure to Act, a report on the costs of doing nothing. According to the report, not acting on the need for infrastructure repair by 2025 will cost $7 trillion in lost business sales, $3.
9 trillion in lost GDP, and 2.5 million jobs. The report claims that American households will lose $3,400 each year in disposable income from 2015 through 2025. These figures are controversial, but civil engineers seem likely to be able to estimate these costs as well as anyone else.
The basic contention is quite clear and not subject to debate: not investing in infrastructure modernization is going to cost a lot and over time, neglect could cost more than reinvestment. There are many areas of concern if we do not act on infrastructure. One is the potential impact on life and health. Deteriorating bridges could collapse, aging dams could burst and flood, and aging city water and sewer pipes could spread infectious disease. A second category of costs due to not acting is real financial loss in the present.
Decaying and inadequate roads increase commuting time and slow deliveries. Urban public transportation down time results in lost work days, a particular problem in cities like New York City and Boston. Just where do we find the several trillion needed to fix the infrastructure? We could make the Federal Highway Trust Fund a major player if we increased the motor fuel tax by say thirty cents a gallon, but the resulting political howls of protest is close to a guarantee that it will not happen. We could stop the practice of raiding trust funds to divert money from the intended use, but that practice is so convenient for government agencies it is unlikely to change. We could charge much higher fees for users, but that would also result in vigorous opposition. We could raise taxes, but the conventional wisdom says that is political suicide.
We could consider much more intense cooperation between the private and public sectors, but there remains deep suspicion of tuning over public resources, such as bridges, to private interests. It’s time we admit that the problem of a deteriorating infrastructure is deeply connected to a deteriorating political culture. A bipartisan effort to design programs and spend money for the public good seems increasingly unlikely. It may take some galvanizing event, like a major loss of life from a dam break, to break the current political impasse and get moving on this crucial need.