Action is vital to preserving the built environment, from bad roads and an aging energy grid to suffering water supplies. Without improvements, the U.S. will move further away from other nations that dedicate more time, money and effort to maintaining their communities. There are a few reasons the country continues to fall behind and what’s being done to fix it.
Though it's been a problem for decades, increased urgency to come up with solutions arose from the pandemic. The Council on Foreign Relations recently released its 2023 State of U.S. Infrastructure report emphasizing the need for action. It mentions issues acknowledged by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2021. The ASCE gave the country and infrastructure a grade of C-, a slight jump from the previous D+ grade.
It's an arguably fair analysis when you look at recent problems experienced throughout the nation. In early 2022, a 50-year-old bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh, causing a bus to tip toward a ravine. After a successful rescue operation, the outcry forced the city to evaluate all of its bridges. A report found that 175 met the lowest ranking the state's Department of Transportation could give them.
Across the county, California predicts that nearly one-quarter of all local roads will be gone by 2024 without action. Almost half of the state's roadways need rehabilitation.
The 2021 Texas power crisis is still fresh in everyone's mind, where 5 million homes were without electricity for days.
Cities from Buffalo, New York, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, are at risk of a major water infrastructure failure. Even after the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, many cities still have lead supply pipes.
The Federal Communications Commission recently reported that 19 million Americans still lack broadband access.
These are just a few of the many problems facing the U.S. How did a nation that prides itself on innovation and economic competitiveness reach this point? There are three primary reasons.
In 2017, less than 25% of infrastructure spending came from the federal government. This put most of the burden on the states, which then pressured local municipalities to manage their own buildings, roadways and transportation systems.
Much of the U.S. infrastructure was built or last updated in the 1960s and has been more or less neglected since. When structures appear to function fine, it’s easy to ignore them. Many people take for granted that the roads they use will always be safe. Priorities shifted to other vital causes.
In 2020, states and cities took on the financial burden of fixing their roadways. With their economies struggling, placing bandages on projects became easier than increasing their municipal debt through building loans.
Population growth exploded during the infrastructure updates of the ‘60s. The 1960 census reported 179 million people living in America. Now, there are more than 330 million.
With an influx of birth and immigration, the country’s infrastructure takes a more considerable beating now than it did when installed. Urban areas saw a population increase of more than 6% in the past decade, greatly impacting high-traffic areas. Many people prefer living in cities due to the various career opportunities and access to public transportation.
The increase in city living contributed to more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is a major contributor to climate change, leading to more severe weather nationwide. Those events further damage the infrastructure built to withstand less harsh conditions.
Both primary political parties agree infrastructure needs funding, but there is much debate over how much is necessary and what is most important.
A recent poll by the University of Chicago and the Associated Press found that a primary issue involves how to pay for the infrastructure updates. More than 80% of Democrats support taxing corporations and wealthy individuals, while only 40% of Republicans agree that it is a good course of action. Meanwhile, half of Republicans and almost 70% of Democrats think infrastructure should be a high priority for the federal government.
The chances of a swift resolution are low when the country is split on an issue. With other priorities in recent years, it’s taken a while to improve the built environment.
What’s Being Done
The state of infrastructure is not all doom and gloom. Several strides have been made in the past year to make the U.S. competitive again.
One of the most significant changes is passing the 2021 $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act invests in bridges, roads, railways, hydropower, broadband internet and other infrastructure projects throughout the country with $550 billion in new spending for five years. States with larger populations and areas received the most funding, with California getting $20 billion and Texas getting $15 billion. New Hampshire got the least amount at $855 million.
The bill provides over $700 million for hydropower: $125 million in incentive payments to qualified hydroelectric facilities for electricity generated and sold, $75 million to enable implementation of capital improvements to improve efficiency, and $554 million to enhance existing hydropower facilities for capital improvements directly related to grid resiliency, dam safety, and environmental improvements.
The Hudson Tunnel Project recently restarted repairing train tunnels under the Hudson River in New York with the help of $292 million from the federal government.
There continues to be slow but steady progress in increasing broadband around the U.S. The FCC recently added 1 million locations to its broadband access map, with more than 300,000 previously having no access.
More government funding is now available to states to deal with lead water access pipes.
The infrastructure bill also dedicates $350 billion to federal highway programs to improve and rebuild roads. That funding is available through 2026.
And, with $97 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. Department of Energy is focused on expanding its existing and creating new pathways for federal investments in research and development, demonstration, and deployment programs to help to achieve carbon-free electricity in the U.S. by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050.
There also is a renewed focus on environmental measures. If successful, it will reduce the impact of climate change on the built environment. Improving transportation options is also a priority, including introducing more high-speed shipping and commuter railways.
The United States has a lot of work to do to improve its infrastructure, but hope is on the horizon. Continuing to fund the repair and replacement of roads and bridges, creating safer water lines and improving broadband access will make it possible to catch up to and surpass other nations’ built environments.