Infrastructure is the umbrella term for the physical systems that make a nation or business tick. Think of our infrastructure in terms of the human body. The highways, streets and public transportation are the arteries. Schools and colleges are the brain. Power plants and utilities are the muscles, vital fluids and bones. What would your reaction be if the result of your yearly physical earned you an overall score of D-plus? After the initial shock, you would do whatever it took to get back on track. Our infrastructure “body” is in a similar situation* and in serious need of following a prescribed course of action to get back into healthy shape.
Consider the average age of our infrastructure:
- Highways and streets – 28.4 years
- Medical institutions (hospitals and nursing homes) – 27.2 years
- Power plants and lines – 24.4 years
- Schools and colleges – 23.3 years
- Public transportation facilities (airports and ports) – 20.1 years
Back in the 50s and 60s - the heyday of infrastructure spending, when Williams Mobile Offices provided mobile office trailers to construction crews working on our interstate highways - federal, state and local governments were spending twice as much (relative to the size of the economy) as they do today. Since that time, the population has certainly increased and the utilization of that infrastructure has, in many cases, surpassed its capacities. As a nation, we are wearing things out faster than we are replacing them.
Why hasn’t there been more investment in our infrastructure?
Many cite our tangled political economy as a top reason. Local governments may be in charge of the streets, but private utility companies may be tearing up those roads. Routine maintenance practices would be more effective than rebuilding, but maintenance budgets are often raided when mayors or governors face a budget shortfall. The federal government can cover part of the problem, but it doesn’t have unlimited funds and it also must deal with budget cuts and shortfalls as well. Congress will soon have to decide if it should renew the Highway Trust Fund (as well as how to re-fund it) or pass on responsibility to individual states. Perhaps we all are guilty of just being too complacent when it comes to our infrastructure – that is, until a major incident rallies us into action.
What does poor infrastructure mean to the average citizen?
The current shape of national infrastructure means:
- Poor roads, more congestion and delays
- Longer travel times
- Inadequate water distribution and less reliable utilities
- Higher costs for businesses to manufacture and distribute goods and services
- Higher prices on products and services
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)* says the result of all of these factors will cost the average family $3,400 per year in disposable income. Ouch. Besides the financial loss, we are losing time as well: The Texas A&M Transportation Institute says the average hours wasted by commuters per year in traffic is 40 hours. Double ouch.
The majority of us do not hesitate to buy the necessary prescriptions, undergo recommended procedures and sign up for fitness programs to improve or maintain our overall health. As a country, we should not hesitate to invest in the long overdue upgrades to our nation’s infrastructure. According to a recent New York Times article, “Infrastructure spending, unlike many other forms of government outlays, holds the power to give the economy a sustained lift for decades down the line.” More jobs will be generated and the benefits of improved transportation, utilities, education and medical systems will ensure our nation is scoring much higher than D-plus.
It has been estimated that the US should spend an additional $150 billion dollars a year through 2020 to improve the health of our infrastructure. With national elections looming on our horizon, both major candidates are indicating they would support a large influx of funds into infrastructure projects. Let’s hold the winner accountable to honor that commitment. The body of our nation is depending on it.
*ASCE’s report card gave America’s infrastructure an overall score of D+ in 2013. Their next report is due to be released in 2017.