Our Crumbling Infrastructure

These days we don’t worry about the dependability and safety of our interstate highways before embarking on a road trip. And we generally don’t wonder about whether our children’s schools are built soundly enough, or if the bridges we take to work each day are in need of critical upkeep.

But maybe we should. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers‘ (ASCE) 2013 infrastructure assessment, our roads, bridges, levees, dams, schools and transit systems are in deep need of improvement. Just about every major infrastructure we depend upon – including drinking water systems – are below the standard necessary to sustain our population growth and demands, the ASCE found. The group’s research is backed up by TRIP, a national transportation group which found that congested highways and deficient upkeep are costing local drivers anywhere between $1 billion and $4.9 billion annually.

Stories like those of Flint, Michican, where the municipal drinking water system is facing comprehensive replacement because of its antiquated lead structures, have galvanized media attention. But what major media outlets haven’t focused on, says the ASCE, is the general disrepair of the nation’s water infrastructure.

“There are an estimated 240,000 water-main breaks per year in the United States,” says the ASCE, referencing a report by the American Water Works Association (AWWA). While the quality of drinking water in major U.S. metropolitan centers has in general remained high, says the ASCE, the lack of upgrades to our drinking water infrastructure that would have removed the threat of lead poisoning in places like Jersey City, New Jersey, is leaving behind a huge price tag. The AWWA estimates that if all aging pipes in the U.S. were to be replaced, it could cost the nation more than $1 trillion in infrastructure upgrades.

And even if there isn’t a major need for infrastructure replacement, the costs continue to mount up. The ASCE estimates that by 2020, unexpected breaks in our aging drinking water and wastewater systems (much of which is already a century old) will cost:

  • $59 billion to consumers in the form of increased water rates
  • $147 billion to businesses for spiraling water rates
  • $416 billion in resulting impacts to the nation’s GDP

The answer, say both the ASCE and the AWWA, is timely upgrades.

“[A] modest increase in investment in drinking water, wastewater and wet-weather water quality measures can prevent future economic losses,” the ASCE says in its summary of the report.

But the deficit between what we need to invest and what national, state, municipal and county agencies are allocating grows each year. By 2020, the gap between what we are investing in our water infrastructure and what is needed to bring the structures up to necessary standards will be $84.4 billion. By 2040, that deficit jumps to $143.7 billion.

Presidential prerogatives?

But of course, water and waste treatment systems aren’t the only types of infrastructure that are demanding attention. Levees, once built to support agricultural development, now hem in major metropolitan areas. The problem isn’t that they exist, says the National Committee on Levee Safety (NCLS), but that there is no national program to ensure their upgrade.

“In the United States there is significant uncertainty about the location, performance and condition of levees that millions rely upon to reduce their risks of flooding,” says the NCLS. Problems such as what occurred during Hurricane Katrina in 2003 — in which a natural disaster, prompted by unusual climate conditions, destroyed levees outside of New Orleans — point to the need for a nationalized management system.

That clarion call has been heard loud and clear by candidates vying for a place in the 2016 presidential race. All of the major Democratic and Republican contenders except for Ted Cruz have put forth infrastructure improvement plans (Ted Cruz actually voted against a much scaled-down bill that allocated $305 billion to roads, bridges and rail lines).

True to this year’s presidential race, each of the plans put forth has its own flavor and outlooks on funding priorities.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders advocates a “highly detailed” $1 trillion, five-year plan that reflects his understanding that our infrastructure demands are vast and exceeding their current capacity.  It includes $6 billion per year to help states protect drinking water systems and $125 billion to “leverage private capital and finance new projects,” as well as a host of other smaller allocations.
  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would plan to invest $50 billion per year to fund infrastructure projects. A one-time $25 billion payment would be set aside to start a national infrastructure bank. Waterways, ports, a smart electrical grid and “safe, reliable sources of water” are also targeted, although Clinton is less specific on how much those would cost and how they would be accomplished.
  • Businessman and Republican front-runner Donald Trump is much less specific on how he would fix infrastructure woes, except to say he’s the man to do it and that private, not public, funding should lead the way. He doesn’t say how much he would allocate to repair the airports he concedes are “a disgrace,” or the potholes that he encounters when he is driving, but he agrees that U.S. infrastructure is “terrible” and given Trump ingenuity and prowess, he attests, a much smaller government can command a greater private business enterprise to put the country’s supporting networks back together again.

None of the candidates has been able to offer plans that will specifically address the $3.6 trillion the ASCE says will be necessary to bring all of the nation’s infrastructure out of the danger zone.

Infrastructure upgrades: What works and whose headache is it anyway?

Obviously, there are lots of views on what it will take to address the nation’s under-managed transportation networks that include roads, waterways, wastewater systems, airports and energy systems. But few experts have been able to comprehensively address the deficiencies from a national perspective. State governments seem to have varying problems addressing the issue as well.

Oregon and Idaho, which both often face severe winter conditions that have been known to take out roads and hamper commerce, received a C- grade on infrastructure from the ASCE in 2013, while Washington, which often deals with similar weather conditions, received a C. Arkansas on the other hand, says the ASCE, has been making progress in updating its system of bridges, although its levees and dams are below the national average and are in severe need of upgrade. Counting on state governments to find the money to ensure all infrastructure systems are maintained is a challenge in just about every state.

One system that has already received some attention in other parts of the world, says Parag Khanna, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, is what he calls as the “mega-regional” management system, in which metropolises join together as networks to address infrastructure demands. The Eastern seaboard, with its interconnected cities and freeways, as well the Los Angeles and San Diego municipal areas with dozens of small communities that rely on the same resources, are in an ideal situation to rethink the way they address infrastructure costs and manpower.

The problem, Khanna points out in his book, “Connectography: Mapping the Future Global Civilization,” isn’t resources or bylaws, but mindset.

“Unfortunately, American policy-making remains wedded to an antiquated political structure of 50 distinct states” in which 50 different entities have say over which interconnecting roads receive upgrades, how rivers are used and managed, and how transportation networks are addressed, Khanna wrote.

And it’s not like it hasn’t been done before, Khanna points out. The Tennessee Valley Authority oversaw infrastructure projects across six states following the Great Depression.

“What is needed, in some ways, is a return to this more flexible, broader way of thinking,” he says. Projects that unify rather than distinguish states and metropolitan areas offer not just a way to solve the challenges of growing regional populations, but also a new way to foster interconnectivity in the global community.

Image: Flickr/NCDOTcommunications