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The Infrastructure Conundrum

In a recent program presented to the Northwest Community Development Institute, I noted that the public infrastructure across the U.S. was deteriorating at 8 to 12 percent faster that it can be rebuilt. When considering all the pipe, drainage systems, roads, bridges, ports, airports, canals, etc. across the land, the amount of infrastructure is staggering. Since the 1950’s the country has experienced virtually non-stop building. For most of this 60-year period, times have been good. But can it last? The simple answer is No.

Infrastructure Decline

The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission has stated that 25 percent of all bridges in the U.S. are functionally obsolete. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, it will take at least $1.6 trillion to return all roads, bridges, and tunnels to acceptable standards. And this number doesn’t properly address the remaining elements of the American infrastructure – all those pipes, ports, dikes, drainage systems, etc. that are experiencing decline through the rational world of budget-dictated deferred maintenance. The level of decay is appalling. Public works officials and engineering professionals have been raising the alarm for years. If anything, numbers stated by elected officials understate the scope and depth of the problem. Trillions rather than billions will probably be required to update bridges alone. Similar to roads, once they deteriorate past a certain point, rebuilding is the only alternative. Stop-gap repair will not return structures to required safety standards. It can help for a while, but it only delays the inevitable.

Pay Now or Pay a LOT Later

When federal and state deficits are calculated, few politicians include all infrastructure requirements. Most include very few of the real costs of renovating the broad spectrum of projects now languishing on deferred project lists in state and local transportation and public works departments. And, without a basic and safe infrastructure, what is left? How will the economy suffer? How are communities impacted? What does business need to be successful OR to be attracted to a city or state? Old, declining infrastructure is NOT a viable element of the ‘New Economy.’  It is a massive Catch-22.

If, as Christopher Steiner notes in his great new book, the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon cannot possibly generate enough revenue to rebuild the road and bridge infrastructure, much less the remaining and very expensive portions not covered by the gas tax. ($20 Per Gallon Gasoline – How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, Grand Central Publishing 2009). As the cost of gasoline rises people will drive less (with gas prices reaching around $4 per gallon, Americans drove 100 billion miles less in 2008 than they did in 2007), which reduces gas usage, tax revenue per gallon, and ultimately, funds dedicated to the national road system.  According to Richard Wallace, a senior project manager at the Center for Automotive Research, as gasoline prices grow to $6 per gallon decreased driving will reduce state road funds by 25% to 30%, accelerating the decline of the entire system. 

Confronting Reality

As I noted in my Institute program, these are realities that must be faced and addressed through funded programs. It will take enormous political will to seek hard data, share it with every community and begin preparing sensible action plans. Many public works and transportation professionals and their various associations have been relegated to a sideline position due to their insistence that infrastructure issues are in fact a huge portion of the national agenda. Infrastructure provides the basic internal framework of the American culture; it is elemental to economic growth, public health, quality of life, security, and National emergency response capability. Gasoline prices will increase as oil supplies decline – and this is well-documented. Even if, as some predict, new automobile technology soon achieves 100 miles to a gallon, vehicles still need decent roads. Smaller vehicles tend to be lighter and will wear out faster. With smaller, lighter cars and trucks, good roads become even more essential.

It is time we directly faced the facts at the local, state and federal level. Whether we move to toll roads, a higher gas tax, use taxes, or some other mechanism, funds must be dedicated to infrastructure. Unfortunately, merely dealing with roads and bridges will not get us very far. Infrastructure issues are MUCH larger. Can we face reality? Can we deal with the facts? And, can we make a plan that can achieve long-term success?  Time will tell. Again, is your organization Prepared For Challenge??

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

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