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U.S. Infrastructure: Ignore the Need or Retake the Lead?

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, April 11th, 2011



Aging and decaying U.S. highways, bridges and public works require urgent attention. A growing population is placing increasing demand for improved transportation networks and public services. However, U.S. infrastructure funding continues to fall short as local, state and federal budget deficits constrain necessary investments. The consequences of underinvestment in these vital systems are dire, affecting the United States’ global standing as a leader in economic growth, productivity, competitiveness, capital inflow, job creation, sustainability and lifestyle.

The decisions made today will determine whether the U.S. will neglect its current and future infrastructure needs or retake its position as the world’s leader in economic and social progress. The key to securing ongoing infrastructure leadership rests in the determination, creativity and innovativeness of public and private institutions to fund and finance the necessary investments. Each day that passes without substantial commitments to U.S. infrastructure development merely postpones the inevitable, multiplies the expense, and increases the likelihood of an intractable public works crisis that will last for generations.

The State of U.S. Infrastructure

Several years ago, a memorable line from an advertising campaign for automotive oil filters ominously stated, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” The well understood implication was that the vehicle owner had a choice: a relatively modest investment today to ensure the car’s continued performance or a much larger investment tomorrow to repair engine damage caused by owner neglect.

The line also applies to the current state of U.S. infrastructure. Unfortunately, despite substantial evidence to support even modest investment compared with demonstrated need, it appears policymakers have defaulted to the “pay me later” choice. No doubt, that bill will come due, and it will be massive. Meanwhile, as we postpone investment, U.S. infrastructure continues to crumble, threatening to send the nation’s already fragile economic engine into full seizure.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card, the U.S. merits a “D” based on its woeful state of disrepair across all categories of infrastructure. Further, ASCE estimates that the five-year needed investment to address the U.S.’s deficient infrastructure is $2.2 trillion. To put this in perspective, the current national deficit is approximately $14 trillion, and yet we need $2.2 trillion to keep our infrastructure intact, safe and contributing to economic growth. Few would argue this represents a minor sum, but fewer still can reasonably argue that the longer-term price of inattention will offer more preferential terms and conditions.

The decline in the quality of U.S. road, rail, port and air transport networks, which we depend upon for the efficient movement of people and goods, has been noted by key international organizations. According to the 2010–2011 Global Competitiveness Index published by the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranked 15th in the category of infrastructure1, behind nations such as the United Arab Emirates (ranked number 3), Singapore (5), the United Kingdom (8), Canada (9) and Iceland (12). This ranking would seem to be the direct byproduct of a 50% decline in U.S. infrastructure investment as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product since 19602.

Other vital U.S. infrastructure systems related to basic social needs also suffer from disrepair. Water and wastewater systems in major municipalities — some more than a century old — are stressed to the breaking point. In 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water and Drinking Water Gap Analysis Report estimated that “if investment in water and wastewater infrastructure doesn’t increase to address anticipated needs, the funding gap over the next 20 years could grow to for Drinking Water capital costs.”

In the decade since the release of EPA’s report, spending has remained inadequate to address the needs. Complicating the challenge, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “Instead of sharing the responsibility to finance the necessary infrastructure Congress has taken the position that achieving the goals of the [Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts] is not a federal responsibility.” As a result, states and municipalities are shouldering a funding burden that in many cases is beyond the ability of their budgets to accommodate.

Meanwhile, the U.S. population continues to grow. Joel Kotkin, Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, predicts U.S. population will swell to more than 400 million by 2050. The short-term challenge to address the urgent state of America’s infrastructure will be child’s play compared with the challenge of accommodating the needs of approximately 25% more citizens. Currently, and absent visionary thinking and stalwart leadership, the U.S. is wholly unprepared to meet either the short-term or long-term challenge.

Download full version (PDF): Ignore the Need or Retake the Lead?

AECOM is a global provider of professional technical and management support services to a broad range of markets, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, water and government.”

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