By No Labels
Infrastructure is shaping up as a top legislative priority — and a rare avenue for bipartisan cooperation in Washington – and not a moment too soon.
America’s infrastructure is in terrible shape, with one engineering group giving it a D+ grade.
The American Society of Civil Engineers releases its Infrastructure Report Card every four years, chronicling the state of our roads, bridges, airports, rail lines, shipping, water facilities and more. The latest report, in 2017, shows that much of our critical infrastructure is aging and falling into a dangerous state of disrepair. After years of underinvestment, the bill is finally coming due.
As the infrastructure debate begins in Washington, here’s what you need to know.
The Society of Civil Engineers makes the case that the U.S. has not invested enough money in infrastructure in recent years, and that it is on track to continue under-investing for the next decade unless something is done. The report card estimates that the U.S. has more than $4.5 trillion in needs for the decade ending in 2025 and that it is on track to spend only about $2.5 trillion. That leaves an infrastructure gap of about $2 trillion. As the report puts it, “America’s infrastructure bill is long overdue.”
Investing in infrastructure is complicated because multiple jurisdictions are involved. Federal, state and local governments all play a role in funding it, as does the private sector. Getting all on the same set of priorities — and ready to invest — can be difficult. A single major road might cut through three townships, a swath of federal land and then wind into unincorporated territory. That means city councils, county government and the feds are all involved in regulating and approving construction. To improve that road, all must have the political will and the funds to move forward.
Of course, no public official wants to starve the capital budget. Rather, they are forced to balance spending on bricks-and-mortar projects with other civic priorities, such as health care and policing. In many areas, they must do so with limited resources and a finite ability to borrow. When budgets get lean, infrastructure projects are often cut back out of necessity. Even when projects do get a green light, they are often delayed by permitting and environmental studies that can dramatically increase the time to completion.
Roads are a good way to understand infrastructure, because we all use them in some way. There are more than four million miles of roadway crossing the United States, according to the report. One in every five miles of highway is in poor condition, and two in five are choked with traffic. The report estimates that there is an $836 billion backlog of highway and bridge projects nationwide.
While that’s a big bill for governments to pay, failing to maintain these roads also has a cost. Americans spent 6.9 billion hours stuck in traffic in 2014, the report says, wasting 3.1 billion gallons of fuel. The cost of all that is estimated at $160 billion in lost productivity and resources. In terms of the average driver, the report says that they spent 42 hours stuck in traffic in 2014 and spent $533 in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs in 2015 thanks to roads that need work.
While neglecting infrastructure can cost money, the opposite is also true: Investment can create jobs, and stimulate economic activity.. U.S. businesses rely on cost-effective land, air and water transportation, as well as stable sources of power and other services. Investment can help keep systems efficient and stabilize costs. “Infrastructure’s condition has a cascading impact on our nation’s economy, impacting business productivity, gross domestic product (GDP), employment, personal income, and international competitiveness,” the report said. A Standard & Poor’s study in 2014 estimated that every $1.3 billion of investment would likely yield 29,000 construction jobs.
President Trump touted infrastructure as a top priority in his campaign, and many members of Congress say it is an area ripe for bipartisan cooperation. Trump’s plan, which calls for $1 trillion in investment—much if it by using tax credits to stimulate more public-private partnerships—and streamlined permitting, was unveiled to top Republicans last week. This week, the administration is meeting with lawmakers to begin discussions on how to move forward. Whether a bill can be crafted that attracts both Republican and Democratic votes remains to be seen.