Evan Stern: We need to fix our aging infrastructure

Tuesday, October 29, 2019 - 1:49pm

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Whether you think about our rusting bridges, pothole-riddled roads or antiquated water and electrical systems, you have surely noticed the alarming state of our old and decaying infrastructure. You should be alarmed. A recent report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers confirmed what most Americans already suspected: The U.S.’s neglected infrastructure is in the middle of a serious crisis.

These reports, released every few years, rank these essential systems at an embarrassing D+ overall. Breaking our infrastructure down into over a dozen categories, the marks become downright disturbing: Bridges earned a C+, energy a D+, wastewater a D+, drinking water a D and transit a D-, to name a few.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Millions of Americans are aware of the startling condition of these vital systems that keep our nation up and running. The decrepit water systems across this nation have been exposed by events like the Flint water crisis, almost 190 million trips are made across "structurally deficient" bridges each day and it is becoming increasingly difficult for our power grid to support the complex needs of our 21st century economy.

Unfortunately, according to the ASCE, our government would need to come up with $4.5 trillion by 2027 in order to bring our infrastructure back up to speed something that in this divisive political age seems highly unlikely. 

While it seems that some proposals have gained a bit of traction such as a $2 trillion plan to address this deepening problem reported by The New York Times Washington as a whole has miserably failed to address this crisis. Year after year, Republicans and Democrats have been unable to part ways with politics and address this dangerous situation, instead preoccupied with how to pay for these much-needed improvements. 

Even President Donald Trump, who has expressed deep interest in fixing our infrastructure, has fallen short. In his victory speech in 2016, he stated that his administration would work to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.” But his infrastructure proposal, announced in February 2018, sadly made limited progress amid the complexity of partisan politics.

Ultimately, our elected officials have failed to realize that solid, modern infrastructure in good working order is essential to a successful economy, especially one as advanced as ours. Failing to allocate the money and resources to our infrastructure will surely send shock waves throughout our entire economic system. With our infrastructure in poor condition, our roads and highways will be more congested and harder to navigate, our public transportation systems will be less reliable for employees trying to get to work, communities will be more isolated from each other and it will be more difficult to address climate change. 

As stated by Robert Puentes, a nonresident senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, “Infrastructure enables trade, powers businesses, connects workers to their jobs, creates opportunities for struggling communities and protects the nation from an increasingly unpredictable natural environment.”

Take the interstate highway system as an example: As one of the greatest advances in American infrastructure of the 20th century, this complex network of roads that stretches across the entire nation provides for extremely efficient travel of both people and goods. According to the Highway and Motorway Fact Book, “The interstate highway system has had a profound effect upon the American economy and contributed significantly to improved economic efficiency and productivity.” Without the construction of this system — much of which is now in need of drastic repairs — our way of life would be dramatically different. “People would be crowded into more densely packed inner cities, intercity travel would occur less often and be more cumbersome; freight charges would be higher and, as a consequence, so would prices. Vacation travel would be more restricted,” the fact book states.

Beyond the direct economic benefits of strong infrastructure, generating the resources and jobs to actually rebuild these crumbling systems is also a significant economic stimulant. The Center for American Progress reports that “upgrading roads, bridges, and other basic infrastructure creates jobs now by putting people to work earning good, middle-class incomes, which expands the consumer base for businesses.” Worthwhile investments into these vital systems is a surefire way to truly reduce unemployment nationwide while simultaneously providing a stronger base for our nation to operate upon.

In the end, fixing our decaying infrastructure is not something that we can choose to debate. Regardless of political identity, we all greatly benefit from secure energy systems, strong communication networks and safe highways, railroads and airports. We cannot sit back and ignore the steady deterioration of our infrastructure while counting on it to fill our needs. If we don’t serve it through common sense action, it will inevitably be too broken to serve us.

Evan Stern can be reached at erstern@umich.edu.