Time for a Radical Infrastructure Overhaul

broken levee in northern california

Image from jessicafm

Infrastructure may not grab the type of headline that, say, the latest solar or algal biodiesel technology does though, when placed in context, it really should. Fortunately, the latest issue of The Economist puts infrastructure front and center in its United States section and, as it usually does with such stories (see their excellent report on the future of energy), hits it right out of the ballpark.

big dig signs in boston

Image from Nantaskart!
For the past few years it has been hard to ignore America's crumbling infrastructure, from the devastating breach of New Orleans's levees after Hurricane Katrina to the collapse of a big bridge in Minneapolis last summer. In 2005 the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that $1.6 trillion was needed over five years to bring just the existing infrastructure into good repair. This does not account for future needs. By 2020 freight volumes are projected to be 70% greater than in 1998. By 2050 America's population is expected to reach 420m, 50% more than in 2000. Much of this growth will take place in metropolitan areas, where the infrastructure is already run down.

A "third-world country" infrastructure?
As we learned from Hurricane Karina and the recent Midwest floods, a few malfunctioning cogs in the great machine of the state can bring its government and people to its knees -- even if only momentarily. In its article, The Economist cites Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), who warns the U.S. could have the infrastructure of a "third-world country within a few decades" if it doesn't act soon.

Record oil prices haven't helped either. In addition to producing less revenues for states that depend on gas taxes to pay for new projects, they've exposed the vulnerabilities of the nation's creaking public transit system (as a sometime LA commuter, I speak from experience here) and sorely demonstrated the need for more robust investment in long-term solutions, like high-speed rail systems.

Falling behind in our infrastructure investment
The U.S. currently spends a minute 2.4 percent of GDP on new infrastructure projects. By comparison, Europe and China spend at least twice as much -- 5 and 9 percent, respectively. So what can be done? The article goes on to lay out several possible solutions that have been mentioned in recent think-tank reports:

How can all this be fixed? In January a national commission on transport policy recommended that the government should invest at least $225 billion each year for the next 50 years. The country is spending less than 40% of that amount today. Yet more important than spending lots of money is spending it in better ways.

The Brookings Institution, a think-tank, recommends that America focus on metropolitan areas, or "metros", the top 100 of which account for 65% of population and 75% of economic output. "America 2050", led by the RPA and a committee of scholars and civic leaders, has a similar scheme for "megaregions", or networks of metros. The federal government should do what it can to ensure that these areas, first of all, have the infrastructure they need to thrive.

This means, among other things, an enhanced federal role in projects that cross state borders, including not only the interstates but intermodal freight and high-speed rail. A better system for evaluating a project's benefit—within a broader strategy for economic development, for example—would help the public get more for its money. Metros would be given more incentives to reduce congestion and sprawl.

Should we sell our roads to companies?
A potentially more contentious alternative is relying more on the private sector to make the necessary investments. Several major banks and private-equity firms, including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, have expressed interest in building new highways or leasing existing turnpikes and installing tolls.

So while it may not carry the oomph of renewable energy or healthcare, infrastructure should be one of this presidential campaign's key voting issues.

Via ::The Economist: The cracks are showing (news website)

Our creaking infrastructure
::Sustainable and Sound Infrastructure Now.
::Tallying Up the Infrastructure Costs of Climate Change
::New York City Infrastructure Fails Again