Blog

Why Is Our Infrastructure So Terrible?

By Sean Doyle
Democracy Digital Organizer

This week is infrastructure week -- a time for us, as a nation, to recognize the growing challenges we face in attempting to maintain our roads, bridges, water systems, airports, and more. Infrastructure isn’t a sexy topic, but it is vital and impacts all Americans, whether they realize it or not. The sad truth is that America is facing a $1.4 trillion infrastructure funding gap through 2025, with transportation infrastructure accounting for more than three quarters of the nation’s entire infrastructure funding gap -- roughly $1.1 trillion.1 According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), if this investment gap is not addressed, the economy is expected to lose about $4 trillion in GDP and will shed at least 2.5 million jobs over the next decade.

The stakes are high, yet this is not a new problem -- in truth, it has been mounting for decades. Yet, despite a bipartisan recognition of the problem, attempts by Congress to solve it have gone practically nowhere.2 As a result, today the nation’s transportation infrastructure ranks 16th in terms of overall quality despite the fact that America remains the wealthiest nation on earth.3

So the question naturally arises, why is America’s infrastructure so bad?

While it is true that the nation must spend more on infrastructure -- especially on transit, biking, and pedestrian options which currently receive only 20 percent of available federal funding -- it is also true (and perhaps even more important) that states must prioritize maintenance and repair with the available funding they do have.

Between 2009 and 2011, states on average spent $20.4 billion annually (about 55 percent) expanding just one percent of the country’s road network. In that same period, states invested just $16.5 billion (45 percent) in maintaining the other 99 percent of the road network.4 As a consequence, the nation now has roughly 58,000 structurally deficient bridges (almost 1 in 10)5 and our roads received a “D” grade in recent evaluations.6

Our infrastructure crisis isn’t some distant problem; it’s having a real effect on every day Americans right now. In addition to the obvious safety concerns posed by crumbling roads and bridges, ASCE pegs the cost of our underinvestment in infrastructure at $3,400 annually for each American family -- and it will grow more expensive each day that pressing maintenance needs are deferred and our bridges and roads continue to deteriorate.

Meanwhile, underinvestment in transit, biking, and pedestrian options has led to a host of negative outcomes. Today, more than three quarters of our transit rail station infrastructure is deficient.7 Prioritizing road and highway expansion incentivizes a single occupant, auto-centric network that increases congestion, poisons our air and water, leaves people without healthy active transportation choices, and disenfranchises large segments of the population. The young, the elderly, the disabled, and those without the means to own and operate a vehicle often find themselves unable to get to where they need to go -- whether it is to a job, to school, to a medical facility, or to a place where they can get healthy food.

Given that current funding levels won’t address the infrastructure funding gap anytime soon, we need to reevaluate how we are spending the limited money we do have. Giving more federal money directly to local communities, spending more of our available funds on transit instead of highways, and limiting highway funding to repairs instead of expansions are all necessary steps. While greater investment in infrastructure overall is absolutely essential, until we address how we’re spending the money we have already, throwing more money at the problem isn’t going to truly fix America’s infrastructure problem.

 


1Failure to Act: Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future, American Society of Civil Engineers, May 10, 2016.
2Melanie Zanona, “How politics are getting in the way of better roads and bridges,” The Hill, May 16, 2016.
3 Road to Growth: The Case for Investing in America’s Transportation Infrastructure, Business Roudtable, September 16, 2015.
4 Repair Priorities 2014, Smart Growth America, March 2014.
5Highway Bridges by State and Highway System 2015,” Federal Highway Administration, last updated February 18, 2016.
6 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, American Society of Civil Engineers, March 2013.
7 Road to Growth: The Case for Investing in America’s Transportation Infrastructure, Business Roudtable, September 16, 2015.

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