Road to Ruin – American Infrastructure Needs Attention, So Why Isn’t It Getting Any?

Many of the most commonly experienced aspects of infrastructure are obvious – road, rail, power, sanitation and other elements associated with maintaining the everyday operations of ‘business as usual’ in the physical world and when they’re missing or failing, we quickly recognise their absence.

In addition to the list of traditional stocks and flows that one would usually associate with this kind of infrastructural makeup, the rapid development of information technology is now challenging our traditional concept of what could be considered ‘essential infrastructure’.

In an age of big data and a digital globalised system that knows no international borders, is the transfer of and access to information now as essential to the success and competitiveness of a society and its economy as its access to power, sanitation, clean water and a fast, safe and reliable transport network?

Many countries increasingly believe this to be the case.

As the challenges posed by a changing and unpredictable environment move closer into focus, so too does the role of the physical safety infrastructure that usually remains hidden from public view, only becoming apparent in its failure to protect us from the worst effects of nature when flooding, storms, or wildfires wreak havoc on our urban areas.

Perhaps the simplest reduction for defining infrastructure in a contemporary context therefore could be to say that it is those elements of the built environment which allow the sustained operation of transportation, communication, health and safety and promote economic growth.

It’s with this definition in mind, that the infrastructure of the richest and most powerful nation on earth is increasingly coming under scrutiny.


The State of Infrastructure in America

Across the political spectrum, one topic which seems to unite both parties in the United States is consensus over the worrying condition of infrastructure across the country.

On the (literal) surface, this recognition is readily observed in the state of those physical infrastructure elements that people use or rely upon on a daily basis.

Whether it’s potholes in the road, concerns over the safety of dams or the deterioration of bridges that have long since passed their safe operational life, widespread consensus exists over the fact that America’s infrastructure has seen much better days.

So just how bad have things become with the nation’s infrastructure?

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) carry out an assessment on the state of U.S. infrastructure every four years.

In the society’s last review in 2017, U.S. infrastructure received an overall average grade of a D+, exactly the same result that had been awarded ten years earlier.

The ASCE estimated that the remedial work required to bring the current shortcomings in the country’s physical network up to at least a B grade would be investment in infrastructure to the tune of around $2 trillion.

While money is so often the answer to many problems such as this, a loosening of federal purse strings has never seemed further from the national agenda with U.S. spending on infrastructure as a proportion of GDP at a significantly low-point from comparable historical levels in the 50s and 70s when many of the country’s most significant road and water infrastructure projects were initially undertaken.

So just how bad is the current state of American physical infrastructure?

Here’s how things looked in the ASCE’s latest assessment of U.S. infrastructure:

  • Aviation: D
  • Bridges: C+
  • Dams: D
  • Drinking Water: D
  • Energy: D+
  • Hazardous Waste: D
  • Inland Waterways: D
  • Levees: D
  • Ports: C+
  • Public Parks D+
  • Rail B
  • Roads D
  • School D+
  • Solid Waste C+
  • Transit D-
  • Wastewater D+

Since the publication of the previous report in 2013, three of these 16 categories had subsequently received lower grades in the latest assessment (parks, solid waste and transit), six remained unchanged from the last review (aviation, roads, energy, bridges, dams and drinking water infrastructure) and the remaining seven had realised slight improvements (inland waterways, rail, ports, levees, schools, wastewater and hazardous waste).

Some of the specific facts and details behind this review and the overall assessment provided by the ASCE do little to dispel fears of a nationwide epidemic of under-investment and make for uncomfortable reading.

  • One third of U.S. urban roads are rated as being in “poor condition”.
  • More than two out of every five miles of the urban interstate network suffered from congestion and traffic delays costing an estimated $160 billion when assessed in 2014.
  • As of 2016, 15,500 dams were identified as falling within the high-hazard category.
  • Of the 30 major airports in the country, 24 are estimated to hit what would traditionally be considered peak holiday traffic as frequently as once a week, all year round.
  • Many Americans still have inadequate access to public transit.
  • Most locks and dams on the inland waterway system have exceed their 50-year design life, and nearly half of vessels experience delays when using the system.

All in all, not a promising outlook of future performance, and certainly not what would be expected from the world’s leading economy.

To understand how this worrying situation came into being and what it means for the future, it helps to get some context and to look at the various potential causal factors attributed by observers, academics and commentators alike in explaining how the country ended up in this position.


Cause and Effect

So what is the reason for such a seemingly self-destructive approach to infrastructure planning on such an all-encompassing scale?

It is tempting to blame the situation on good old-fashioned greed and while the profit/expense motive may well play a major (if not indisputable) role in the national infrastructure emergency, it should be weighed up against some of the other factors that many claim play an equal part in properly understanding and ultimately, resolving the crisis.

Some point to the sheer size of the U.S. and the practicalities involved with installing, repairing and refreshing everything from rail and highway systems to airports, bridges and electrical grids across so vast an area.

Opponents to this view are understandably quick to point to similar case studies from around the world as a rebuttal to such claims however.

For example, if geography is truly the greatest obstacle to progress, how then are nations such as China (a country of comparable size to the U.S.) leading the way in high-speed rail deployment (having now created two-thirds of such lines in the world), while American efforts seem continually to grind to a halt or massively overshoot allocated budgets as seen in similar Stateside plans for high speed rail projects in California.


Looking Backwards to Move Forwards

Some of the greatest leaps forward in U.S. infrastructural investment were arguably achieved in the decades immediately following the Second World War, during which many of the most pivotal projects in American physical infrastructure were undertaken.

From the creation of the national interstate system to the joining up of the national power grid to achieve a connected energy web, a concerted infrastructure strategy during this period has arguably been one of the key components in helping to cement U.S. economic success throughout the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st.

The problem is that many of these investments are now significantly past their shelf-life and infrastructure that was only designed to operate for 50 years, has been pushed to 70 with no sign of upgrade or replacement in the foreseeable future.

It probably comes as little surprise to many (and cold comfort to those still awaiting change) to learn that the seemingly stagnant progress regarding infrastructure in the United States probably comes down to the usual combination of economics, politics, and the unfortunately ever-present bedfellow of both – self-interest.

However, in a rapidly shifting global landscape, it may soon be the case that environmental, economic and geostrategic forces will force the issue and break this impasse.

As other nations continue to invest in their cities and regions across every level of the infrastructure spectrum, America is increasingly at risk of falling behind in an ever-changing world.

In order to prevent the U.S. from permanently losing its competitive edge to other international players who truly understand the importance of reliable infrastructure as the critical ingredient for a successful society and a resilient economy, the time for action is now.

With the ASCE’s next report on U.S. infrastructure due in 2021, it remains to be seen just how many of these warning signs will have been heeded.

Any further regressions or a continued lack of progress in the next report will represent more than “just another bad grade” and would signal a systemic, and perhaps even irreversible decline in the economic progress enjoyed by the country up until now.