Monday night’s presidential debate included some instructive moments even for their repetitiveness; other moments were mere distracting distortions.
We have been writing about the need to upgrade America’s infrastructure it seems almost weekly. But only tangentially was the issue raised during the debate. Donald Trump, among his bill of particulars defining the trouble the Obama administration has ushered in over the past eight years, mentioned the sorry state of U.S. airports and compared them unfavorably to similar facilities in Asia.
“Our airports are like from a third-world country. You land at LaGuardia, you land at Kennedy, you land at LAX, you land at Newark and you come in from Dubai and Qatar and you see these incredible — you come in from China — you see these incredible airports and you land — we’ve become a third-world country,” Trump observed.
As Kim Day, the CEO of Denver International Airport, noted in an Op-Ed forThe Denver Post on the 20th anniversary of the local airport’s opening: “DIA is an economic powerhouse for Colorado, growing its initial annual economic impact of $3.1 billion to an estimated $26.3 billion in 2013. The airport supports nearly 190,000 jobs, and is on track to be even more impactful in the years to come.”
It’s not a perfect picture, of course, as cost overruns for project expansions, including a new train station and a hotel, well illustrate.
Nevertheless, a decision made 27 years ago to spend more than $2 billion on a new airport — the only major new one built in the U.S. since 1974 — has helped diversify Colorado’s economy and spurred broader growth.
Airports are certainly one area in which we can use an upgrade. We also need more and newer bridges, roads, and tunnels. And we need to upgrade the electrical grid. And we need to improve and update our port facilities.
The problem with the United States’ infrastructure is much broader than failing airports and bridges. The nation’s roads are congested and full of potholes. In 2014, the typical urban commuter spent 42 hours stuck in traffic, up from 20 hours in 1984. Americans consumed over three billion gallons of gas as they sat in gridlock for almost seven billion hours, at a cost of $160 billion in wasted fuel and time.
Hydration is absolutely essential, and yet we continue to ignore the state of the infrastructure that delivers it to us. In its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our “drinking water” assets a “D.”
According to Professor Robert Glennon of the University of Arizona:
Our water infrastructure consists of approximately 54,000 drinking water systems, with more than 700,000 miles of pipes, and 17,000 wastewater treatment plants, with an additional 800,000 miles of pipes. A 2012 report of the American Water Works Association concluded that more than a million miles of these pipes need repair or replacement. That’s why communities across the nation suffer 240,000 water main breaks per year. The major cause of pipe failure is age.
Disease and death follow from poorly conceived and maintained water infrastructure.
The root of the crisis is clear: the United States has underinvested in its infrastructure. The federal gas tax is the main source of federal funding for roads, bridges, and subways. But Washington has not increased that tax, of 18.4 cents per gallon, since 1993; in real terms, its value has thus fallen by over 40 percent. Expert groups such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, business associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and unions such as the AFL-CIO have all called for trillions of dollars of new investment. But Washington has failed to act.
The problems that plague American infrastructure are deep-seated and complex. Yet there is a way out. Washington and the public must recognize that world-class infrastructure does not come cheap. High-quality infrastructure is vital to global economic competitiveness, and the United States is falling behind. The United States invests less than two percent of its GDP in infrastructure; Europe, by contrast, invests five percent. Furthermore, the bureaucratic system that oversees public infrastructure spending has become hopelessly “siloed,” with separate agencies at each level of government dedicated to different modes of transport. Each has its own stakeholders, champions, and opponents. It’s a wasteful, inefficient system. Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University in his book “The Road Taken”, claims reforming it will require several steps.
Firstly, governments should eliminate silos. A unified department should merge the federal highway, transit, aviation, maritime, and railroad administrations; the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls investment in ports; and the Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs, which provide federal funding for sewer systems and drinking water. This unified department of infrastructure should incentivize state and local authorities to make smarter choices with federal funding. For instance, it could coordinate the timing of different projects, such as a sewer-line expansion and a road repair, so that the government has to dig only once. It should also consider instituting a so-called corridor-based approach, similar to the one the United Kingdom uses, in which the government evaluates a set of projects designed to solve a particular problem and chooses the most cost effective among them. For example, to improve the flow of people between Washington, D.C., and New York City, policymakers should compare the costs and benefits of investing in highways, high-speed rail, increased airport capacity, and more efficient freight rail and shipping to decide how best to solve the problem, rather than doling out funds to each of the various transportation agencies without coordination.
The United States has reached a fork in the road. It can let its infrastructure crumble, its bridges collapse, and its roads grow ever more congested. While Government at all levels has a tenuous debt-and-deficit situation, government entities can nevertheless also borrow at historically low rates. It makes sense accordingly to lock in cheap money to pay for infrastructure investments with long economic tails. Finally, policymakers should not fear the private sector. Good ideas frequently come from sources outside the government. Cities and states should allow both the public and the private sectors to submit unsolicited proposals for innovative infrastructure projects. Of course, these projects would have to be rigorously and publicly evaluated. But the fact that private companies are motivated by profit is no reason for the government to ignore them.