How Bad Is America's Infrastructure, Really?

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge
An aerial view of Manhattan during sunset with Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, on March 21, 2021. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

If you've been following the news in Washington, D.C. lately, you're probably aware of the struggle in Congress to pass a bipartisan infrastructure proposal. But on Wednesday, July 28, 2021, the Senate voted to take up a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill to provide about $550 billion for a vast range of projects — everything from replacing lead water pipes and repairing roads and bridges, to building a national network of electric car charging stations and providing broadband internet access to Americans who don't have it.

In a statement, President Joe Biden called the deal "the most significant long-term investment in our infrastructure and competitiveness in nearly a century. This deal makes key investments to put people to work all across the country — in cities, small towns, rural communities, and across our coastlines and plains."

The brouhaha has a certain amount of déjà vu about it. Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, pledged to spend $1 trillion to rebuild the nation's roads and bridges, and eventually upped the proposed amount to $2 trillion. But his administration's efforts to promote plans faltered multiple times, to the point that the term "infrastructure week" became a euphemism for futility.

Biden's infrastructure deal still has a long way to go before it becomes law. It must be turned into formal legislative text and clear final votes in both the House and Senate. But this Senate vote is quite an achievement for Biden, and lays the groundwork for his first major bill to be passed through bipartisan measures.

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What Is Infrastructure?

Of course, all of this begs the bigger question: What is infrastructure, anyway? How much of all the things that call infrastructure need to be fixed or upgraded, and why is it so maddingly difficult for politicians to agree upon how to get it done?

Infrastructure is a catch-all term for the various big things — roads, bridges, tunnels, rail lines, dams, buildings, and systems that supply water and electricity, to name a few — that our civilization needs to function.

"It's the built environment that supports our lives," Joseph Schofer explains. He's a professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate dean of the engineering school at Northwestern University, who hosts "The Infrastructure Show," a podcast on which authoritative guests discuss topics ranging from rail lines to inland waterways. "If you didn't have infrastructure, you'd be sitting in an open field, praying for rain."

When the term infrastructure — a Latin-based French word — first came into vogue in the late 1800s, it meant the foundation or substructure of a building, road or railroad line, according to Merriam-Webster. It wasn't until after World War II, when European countries began building a vast array of airfields, barracks, railways, depots and other projects for use by NATO forces, that the term took on a broader meaning.

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America's Infrastructure Report Card

Compared to the world, the U.S. infrastructure is not terrible. According to The Global Competitiveness Report 2019, a scorecard released by the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranked 13th out of 141 countries in overall infrastructure, but still scored perfect scores of 100 in various measures, including road connectivity, access to electricity and the safety of its drinking water. Quality of roads got a 5.5 out of 7.

But shouldn't it be better? The same report, which annually assesses the drivers of productivity and long-term economic growth, ranked the U.S. as second only to Singapore taking all factors into consideration.

People have been complaining about infrastructure being in a sorry state for decades. Back in the early 1980s, the book "America in Ruins" warned that spending on public works projects was decreasing, and that the nation's "public facilities" were wearing out, faster than they were being replaced. One of its co-authors, Pat Choate, warned Congress that one of every five U.S. bridges was in need or either a major overhaul or total reconstruction, and that New York City was losing 100 million gallons (378 million liters) of water daily because of aging water lines, according to a New York Times account of his testimony.

bridge collapse, Miami
Law enforcement and members of the National Transportation Safety Board investigate the scene where a pedestrian bridge collapsed a few days after it was built over SW 8th Street allowing people to bypass the busy street to reach Florida International University on March 16, 2018, in Miami.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The report cards haven't much improved since then. In 2015, the Brookings Institution warned that the China was investing four to five times as much as the U.S. in maintaining and improving its infrastructure, and that Canada, Australia, South Korea and European countries were spending significantly more as well.

And in 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a C-minus for the state of infrastructure across the nation. It warned that 43 percent of U.S. roads and highways were in "poor or mediocre" condition, and that more than 46,000 of the nation's bridges were in such lousy shape that it would take another 50 years just to complete all the currently needed repairs. The levees and stormwater systems that protect many communities from flooding earned a D grade.

Public transit systems earned a D-minus, with nearly one in five transit vehicles and 6 percent of tracks, tunnels and other facilities in poor condition. The nation's drinking water systems lose enough H2O each day to fill more than 9,000 swimming pools, even though 12,000 miles (19,312 kilometers) of water pipes were being replaced each year. The electrical grids were in somewhat better shape, but still dangerously vulnerable to bad weather, with 638 transmission outages over one recent four-year period.

"The ASCE report card on infrastructure has been bad for years, so this is nothing new," Anthony J. Lamanna, an engineering professor and construction expert at Arizona State University, explains via email. "We've seen it coming. "

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How America Got This Way

There are multiple reasons why U.S. infrastructure isn't in the shape that it should be.

The first, simply, is roads, bridges, and other pieces of infrastructure are designed to have a useful life span, and inevitably, their parts start to wear out. "The longer you design something to last, the more expensive it is to build it," he says. "So, it's a trade-off."

Case in point: The bridges that are part of the nation's Interstate Highway System, which began construction during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, more than six decades ago. "So, we're nearing the end of life for some of the bridges," Lamanna says. "In fact, we're beyond it in some cases."

Another problem is that much of the nation's infrastructure is controlled by the public sector, and its upkeep is supported by taxpayers.  Much of the funding for maintaining highways and bridges, for example, comes from federal and state gasoline taxes, and increasing the taxes is politically risky for elected officials, even though today's fuel-efficient cars get more miles — and put more wear-and-tear on the roads — per gallon of gas.

Additionally, there's a powerful disincentive for politicians who face reelection to spend money on maintenance and renovations of existing infrastructure, as opposed to putting it into shiny new projects that will impress their constituents. "When was the last time you went to a groundbreaking ceremony for a rehabilitated transit station or a rebuilt road?" asks Schofer.

And what compounds the dilemma is that while roads and bridges are in plain view, other parts of the nation's infrastructure are largely invisible — that is, until they break down. "I can't see the water and sewer lines, but I need them," Schofer explains. "That's one downside of the civil infrastructure system in the U.S. Things work so well and massive failures are so rare that people say, 'Why should you tax me more? It works fine.'"

The problem, of course, is that if spending for maintenance and renovations is deferred for too long, infrastructure assets start to show their age, or else can't keep up with increases in demand. That's one reason that there's often a contrast in the condition of publicly controlled infrastructure and privately owned assets, such as the freight rail network, where owners understand that their profits are dependent upon regular maintenance. "They can't afford a failure, " Schofer says.

"We're not spending enough, we're not spending strategically, and we're not spending in a focused kind of way, " Schofer explains.

steel bridge in Cleveland
A steel bridge in Cleveland, Ohio.
Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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Fixing America's Infrastructure

One solution advocated by the National League of Cities and others is to put more infrastructure assets in the hands of public-private partnerships, AKA P3s. A private-sector company will take on the financing, construction and long-term maintenance of an infrastructure asset, with the costs spread out over the life of the asset, and is paid through user fees or taxes by government, which retains actual ownership of the asset. (Here's an article from Government Technology, a trade publication, on how the P3 model works.)

Lamanna has another idea for improving infrastructure. "Without getting too political, it would be awesome if we had more engineers in the government," he says. A 2021 Congressional Research Service report notes that there are just eight engineers in the U.S. House of Representatives and one in the Senate, compared to 144 House members and 50 Senators who have law degrees.

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Originally Published: Jul 12, 2021

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