How to Fix America’s Crumbling Infrastructure

Like most Americans, you probably don’t think about our nation’s infrastructure—the public works that serve as the backbone of our country—until something goes wrong: you find yourself snarled in a traffic jam, or hear a report about a possible contaminate in the water supply, or become frustrated at your plane’s two-hour delay. But waiting until one of these works fails is a critical mistake, says the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The group, which notes that a sound infrastructure not only helps the economy, but also is a quality-of-life issue, recently judged the country on 15 infrastructure categories ranging from aviation, drinking water, and hazardous waste to rail, schools, and security. The resulting “2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” awards the U.S. an overall grade of “D”: a step below the cumulative D+ received in 2001, the last time the ASCE issued the report. The document also offers an analysis of each of the 15 areas, as well as breakdowns of infrastructure quality in each of the 50 states.

The ASCE estimates that $1.6 trillion needs to be invested in the next five years to solve the current and looming infrastructure problems. We spoke to ASCE president William P. Henry about the report, the potential what-ifs, and the ways through which we can get the infrastructure back in shape. Excerpts from the talk follow.

Can you pinpoint when the U.S.’s infrastructure began to fall into decline?

The first report on the infrastructure that I remember was during the Reagan administration in the late 1980s. That’s the baseline for where we are. And by that time the decline had already started: we were not receiving the needed funding to replace worn-out and obsolete equipment.

What is perpetuating the frail state of the infrastructure?

If something has worked, the tendency is to assume it’s always going to work; we as engineers know that that’s not the case. So while the general public may think, “Oh, there’s not a problem because I turn on the tap and there’s water there,” there may be problems that will be catastrophic if they are not dealt with.

It costs three to four times as much to fix a broken system as opposed to replacing it in an orderly way. So do you want to spend a dollar now or four bucks when it fails?

Has the emphasis upon highway development taken away some of the money for other infrastructure projects?

No. I think each of the transportation systems—air, water, rail, and road—has its own unique place in our economy and society and needs to be addressed.

Now about that $1.6 trillion that the ASCE estimates we would need to shore up America’s infrastructure: Could you explain that?

That $1.6 trillion is what we would need to make things work as they should. We’re probably going to spend something in the order of 60% of that anyway on our patch-and-pray approach. But what we’re not able to do is get over the hump and do the capital replacement.

If you were a home owner, for example, you know you’ll have to pay the electric and gas bills every month, you know that you’ll have to paint the place every once in awhile. That’s just the routine operation of the home.

It’s the same in infrastructure. If you are a home owner and have more children, you might you have to add a room onto the house. That’s increased capacity—the same need that arises when more people use our infrastructure. If you want to keep the dog in or the neighbors out, you have to put a fence, and that’s security. That’s a whole new ball game for our infrastructure.

Which infrastructure areas do you feel need attention immediately?

As engineers we are always concerned with public health, safety, and welfare. So the water and waste-water systems are the ones on which I personally place the highest priority. The third one is the road system, because there are traffic deaths every year and because the time wasted in traffic jams keeps people away from their families and communities.

Aside from more money, what steps could be taken to improve the situation?

Our country’s approach to infrastructure is piecemeal. So as a first step we need a body to develop a plan for sustainable infrastructure for the 21st century for the United States. We [at the ASCE] are working on a letter to the federal administration asking them to form such a commission.

Will the ASCE follow up on the report card findings in other ways?

Yes. We intend to keep informing our members when votes are coming up on [relevant] bills, so that they can contact their legislators. We will keep talking with members of Congress and educate them on the need for both a comprehensive infrastructure plan and attention paid to our infrastructure now.

We maintain close working relationships with the federal agencies: The Corps of Engineers, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration. Many of our members will continue to work with the state counterparts of these agencies, too.

How would you sum up the response to your report card?

At our press conference for the report card, Don Plusquellic, the Mayor of Akron, Ohio who is also the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, spoke about the need for infrastructure improvements. Mayor Plusquellic, who had a bridge collapse in his area, saw first-hand what could happen if infrastructure went uncared for. As he said, “I would rather replace a bridge a year or two early than a day too late.”

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