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For a few days last month, the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge focused the public’s attention on the condition of the nation’s infrastructure. But like in the aftermath of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis six years ago, the public’s concern moved to other issues before support could form around modernizing our nation’s infrastructure. The nation’s apathy concerning the state of our infrastructure is one of the most dangerous factors affecting the development of our communities.
Our infrastructure is outdated and simply dangerous, compared to many other industrial democracies. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the U.S. needs to spend $1.6 trillion before 2020 just to maintain the current poor condition of our infrastructure. In the organization’s latest report, the nation’s infrastructure received an overall grade of a D+. This grade, while low, is an improvement on past scores. While roads, rails, and bridges have improved slightly, other vital systems remain in weak condition. For instance, the ASCE’s grade for the U.S. drinking water system has declined from a B- in 1988 to a D in 2013. Aviation’s grade has also experienced a similar decline. And it should be sobering that our schools have not received a grade higher than a D by the ASCE. To move beyond merely maintaining this weak infrastructure toward improving it, the ASCE claims that the nation will need to spend $3.6 trillion.
While our infrastructure, once the envy of the world, continues to decline, China is constructing a world-class rail system. Europe continues to spend more public resources than the U.S. developing sustainable infrastructure and energy systems. For example, Germany has made ambitious plans to rely more on renewable energy in the short-term, not the long-term. While the nation’s plans have hit a few road bumps, at least, the Germans are attempting to implement a national energy plan. The U.S. has no such national energy or infrastructure plan. It appears that the nation will continue to rely on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. In fact, the U.S. is projected to be the number one producer of oil within a few years. While other nations are constructing high-speed rails, the U.S. cannot maintain the entire stretch of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited line. The line use to run from the east coast to the west, but after Katrina, the line only operates from New Orleans to Los Angeles. The track east of New Orleans is listed as having “suspended service.”
In the past, the infrastructure projects of other nations inspired our policy makers. The Autobahn inspired President Eisenhower to secure passage of the Interstate Highway System through Congress. Today, policy makers suffer from a gridlock of will to address our crumbling infrastructure, and this will have devastating effects on the future of our communities.
How does infrastructure affect the development of communities? First, a robust infrastructure system ensures that we are able to move goods and services, but also people in the most effective ways possible. In order to attract and retain quality jobs, communities need functioning infrastructure. Chattanooga, TN is enjoying the economic benefits of past investments in traditional infrastructure and information technology—leading to the city having the nation’s fastest Internet connections. Businesses are attracted to communities that have quality infrastructure, and scholarly research has shown that public infrastructure projects boost the amenities and economic development of communities.
Second, infrastructure can unite or divide us. Infrastructure properly designed can reconnect the social fabric of communities. But a singular focus on road construction can harm communities. As the federal urban renewal program taught us, construction of roads can destroy communities. Infrastructure can unite us when projects bring amenities and multiple transportation modes to communities.
Lastly, infrastructure can inspire communities. The Progressive Era planners, such as Burnham, Root, and Olmstead, inspired the nation with their buildings and designs. Our current move to maintain and build infrastructure on the cheap gives us uninspiring developments with short-shelf lives. And many communities make land-use decisions that cause tenants to move out of structurally sound buildings to new facilities just a few miles down the road. Meanwhile, the old structures sit vacant adding to sprawl and creating physical space between community members.
To protect our communities, we need to focus on creating modern, sustainable systems. We have the resources as a nation. As many have argued, with the current record-low borrowing rates, the nation could fund infrastructure projects on a grand scale, similar to rural electrification during the New Deal. As Ezra Klein recently argued, we need more infrastructure hawks and fewer deficit hawks. The damage of not updating our infrastructure will affect future generations just as much if not more than deficits. But since 2008, infrastructure spending has dropped significantly.
We need the public and our policy makers to focus on long-term goals, instead of short terms incentives. No small task to say the least. While we are caught in apathy and gridlock, China is planning to fund the Nicaragua Canal. The canal will allow passage of ships with twice the tonnage of the ships allowed through the Panama Canal. Public apathy and governmental gridlock is holding back affordable infrastructure financing, and if this does not change, our communities will continue to suffer.
Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the department of government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be contacted via [email protected]