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Infrastructure – American Democracy can do Better

  • brendagiven
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This discussion on America’s physical infrastructure is the fourth in a 5-part series that reviews potential solutions to change the course of our Democracy, toward high national alignment and contentment that also drives economic growth. The series reviews ideas for a unifying national vision to address our most pressing problems; Washington, income inequality (including healthcare and immigration), natural disasters, physical infrastructure and education.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, estimates the U.S. needs to spend $4.5 trillion by 2025 to fix the country’s roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure. The ASCE grades most of our important infrastructure with a failing D: Aviation, Dams, Power Transmission, Roads, Drinking Water, Hazardous Waste & Wastewater, Levees, Schools, Transit, Inland Waterway and Parks & Recreation systems are all failing.

Although bridges, ports, and rail and solid waste systems receive passing grades, they are also being ignored and will eventually fail.  Most of these systems are over 50 years old, some elements, like water pipes, are almost 100 years old. These aging systems are past their life expectancy and unable to keep up with today’s ever-increasing demands. And serious funding gaps will continue to make the problems worse.

  • Airport congestion is becoming a serious problem. With 2 million U.S. travelers daily, 24 of the top 30 airports could soon hit “Thanksgiving-peak traffic volume” one day a week.
  • In 2016, 15,500 dams were considered high-hazard.We also need to spend $80 billion in the next 10 years to shore up levees.
  • About 56,000 bridges are already structurally deficient, with another 150,000 at risk due to age, according to the latest data from the Federal Highway Administration.
  • Almost 1/3 of urban and 14% of rural roads are in poor condition, costing Americans $160 billion in wasted fuel annually. There’s an $836 billion backlog of unmet capital needed to fix our roads, according to a report by the US Department of Transportation.
  • Power interruptions are increasingly common, due to aging infrastructure,  and in dry regions poorly maintained transmission lines contribute to massive wildfires.
  • More than ½ the U.S. population lives within 3 miles of a hazardous waste site, which occupy 22 million acres of land and will continue to grow. We also need better recycling systems to continue to cope with our more than 258 million tons of trash annually.
  • ¼ of U.S. schools are in poor to fair condition, due to unfunded maintenance.
  • Aging water pipes result in the loss of two trillion gallons of treated water each year. Demand for water treatment plants is expected to grow 23% over the next 15 years.
  • The U.S. has 926 ports responsible for almost $5 trillion in economic activity. Increasing congestion, bigger ships and aging truck and rail networks are creating problems.
  • Although freight railroads are in relatively good shape, passenger rail needs upgrades, esp. in the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak’s backlogged projects is 111 years old.
  • Only ½ of U.S. households can travel to a grocery store using public transit, which remains severely underfunded, currently by over $100 billion.
  • The National Park Service reached $11.9 billion in deferred maintenance in 2015.

America’s infrastructure is critical to our success and essential for national security – it improves economic performance, keeps the public safe and creates well-paying jobs, especially when newer technology is deployed, like that used in renewable power or 5G communications, which create some of the best paying employment in the country. Communities with unsafe or outdated infrastructure can’t grow or compete, are generally underserved and have higher health and income inequality. Research suggests that every well-spent dollar of infrastructure investment would raise GDP by 20¢ in the long run–if deployed correctly.

So how can we better tackle our infrastructure needs?

  1. Increase federal infrastructure spending – In Europe, 5% of GDP is spent on infrastructure projects, compared to a mere 2% in the U.S. We need to remind our representatives of the importance and long-term value of infrastructure spending.
  2. Create more Public/private partnerships and private investment – private investors have $120 trillion in assets under management, and are looking for solid long-term investments. The head of one U.S. pension fund said, “In theory, the U.S. would be the greatest infrastructure investment market in the world. In reality, it isn’t worth the headache, and the pipeline of projects is pitiful.” According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), in 2015, only five PPP deals worth a total of $2.4 billion closed in the U.S.
  3. Develop a streamlined infrastructure process – We need a national effort to streamline the permitting, decision-making and funding paralysis in local, state and federal government. A unified department to merge the federal highway, transit, aviation, maritime, and railroad administrations; the Army Corps of Engineers; and the Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs” would reduce inefficiencies and better secure federal funding. And a national effort is needed to unlock productivity-enhancing innovation in U.S. construction – industry productivity is lower today than it was in 1968, while all other industrial sectors have experienced impressive gains.
  4. Revamp the highway trust fund – the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax has not changed since 1993. As a result, the highway fund has lost 1/3 of its purchasing power over the past 18 years, causing it to spend more money than it takes in. And long-term, as more hybrid, electric and fuel-efficient cars reduce gas use, the highway system faces perpetual underfunding. Most experts endorse shifting to a Vehicle Miles Traveled fee.
  5. Invest in “intelligent” infrastructure – sensors and cameras to mitigate congestion, smart traffic lights, electronic toll collection, communication & signs to assist autonomous vehicles, onboard computers to track transit and freight systems, etc. The US Government Accountability Office estimates setting up the entire country with real-time traffic management systems would cost $1.2 billion. But, it would save Americans $30.2 billion in economic, safety, and environmental costs in less than ten years, reducing travel times, emissions and crashes and helping officials better coordinate during emergencies and plan for the future.
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Author: brendagiven

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