Why You Should Care About US Infrastructure

Even before he announced his candidacy for President, Sen. Bernie Sanders touted a plan for America’s infrastructure.  His bill, the Rebuild America Act of 2015, would cost around $1 trillion and create and maintain 13 million jobs.  It seems like a hefty price tag, but given the fact that the infrastructure in the U.S. is crumbling, it is well worth it.

The Current State of America’s Infrastructure
Back in June 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations released “Road to Nowhere,” a progress report on US infrastructure.  While the report is short and informative, the infographic sums up the message nicely:



When we compare the U.S. with our counterparts in the OECD, the results are not good for America; however, things have improved since the report.  According to the OECD’s “2015 Going for Growth,” U.S. spending as a percent of its GDP has increased to 4.1% (the OECD average is 3.5%).  Additionally, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index ranked the overall quality of U.S. infrastructure  at 16th (we were 24th in 2012).  While that is illustrative of improvement here, it is surely still not what one might expect from the world’s largest economy (based on GDP).

Perhaps one of the best places to look for information on all of this is the “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” from the American Society of Civil Engineers.  While the ASCE stands to benefit from building and maintaining our infrastructure, the U.S. report card and the Wisconsin state report card are still good gauges.  Here are just a few of the pieces of information I found that highlight the need for improvement:

  • In some places, pipes and mains for drinking water are more than 100 years old (p. 5)
  • “One in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient.” (p. 6)  This means that they are restricted to light vehicles, closed to traffic, or require rehabilitation.  In Wisconsin, 8.5% of the bridges fit this description.
  • Schools do not have the funding they need for construction and maintenance. In Wisconsin, schools had “$4.4 billion in infrastructure funding needs.”
  • Wisconsin has fifty-five sites on the National Priority List.  These are sites that “release or threaten the release of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants.” (p. 21)
  • “32% of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, costing U.S. motorists…$67 billion a year.” (p. 21)
  • “42% of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually.” (p. 48)  The ASCE estimates the fuel lost at 1.9 billion gallons.
  • “45% of American households lack any access to transit.” (p. 51)
  • The U.S. electric grid has facilities dating back to the 1880s (p. 60, italics mine)

The main reason the U.S. has problems with its infrastructure is funding.  As noted above, spending has increased since 2012, but it is still not enough.  In their report on creating a national infrastructure bank, the Center for American Progress highlights four main problems with funding and investment:

  • Failure to provide sufficient public funds
  • Failure to attract private investment
  • Failure to coordinate investments
  • Failure to allocate funds efficiently (p. 4, NIB)

If the lack of funding is not addressed (and therefore infrastructure is not maintained), the ASCE estimates “by 2020, the economy is expected to lose almost $1 trillion in business sales, resulting in a loss of 3.5 million jobs.” (p. 5, “Failure to Act: The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America’s Economic Future“)  They’ve even created a nice infographic on the topic:

Investing in Infrastructure


The U.S. government cannot keep putting off funding and investing in infrastructure.  At the current rate, the funding gap is projected to be just over $1 trillion by 2020 and almost $4.7 trillion by 2040. (p. 7, Failure to Act).

Economic Impact
If you’re still not convinced about the need for massive reform concerning U.S. infrastructure, maybe some figures on the economic impact will help.  It is important to remember that lack of funding and investment for infrastructure negatively affects “business productivity, GDP, employment, personal income, and international competitiveness.” (p. 4, Failure to Act)  In other words, crumbling infrastructure affects trade.  If trade is affected, then jobs are also affected.  If jobs are affected, personal income is affected.  Delays in shipping goods (whether on the surface, waterways, or in the air) to markets increases the cost of those goods.  If the cost of goods goes up, disposable income goes down.  At the current rate, U.S. households can expect “an average loss of more than $3,000 per year through 2020 in disposable income.” (p. 7, Failure to Act)

In 2010, 76% of U.S. exports and 70% of imports arrived via ports (p. 41, Report Card).  If the roads, rail system, and inland waterways to ports (as well as other modes of transportation) are not sufficient to handle the movement of goods, it could spell economic trouble.  Ports are an important part of the Wisconsin economy, as they handle approximately $2.4 billion in goods every year.

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 1.49.41 PM

Additionally, “deficient and deteriorating transit systems cost the U.S. economy $90 billion in 2010” (p. 51, Report Card).  Improving and increasing transit systems would help those without access to automobiles get to places of employment or stores.  Additionally, passenger rail helps decrease wear and tear of roads, as well as reduce congestion of roads and highways.

Undertaking a massive plan to overhaul U.S. infrastructure not only helps businesses and trade, it also helps workers.  According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, “every $1 billion in highway spending can directly and indirectly create up to 13,000 jobs a year.”  Additionally, many infrastructure jobs have low barriers to entry, which makes it easier for workers without a four-year college degree to find employment.  Since infrastructure workers do, however, need recruiting and training, this is an opportunity for technical colleges to offer more programs.

Time to Rebuild America
It should be clear that the U.S. has a lot of work to do to improve its infrastructure.  The ASCE Report Card argues that “America’s infrastructure needs bold leadership and a compelling vision at the national level” (p. 9).  Out of the major presidential candidates who have officially announced their candidacy, only Bernie Sanders has a plan- the Rebuild America Act.  His bill calls for funds to be allocated to the following areas:

  • The Highway Trust Fund (which is about to run out of money)
  • Intercity Passenger and High-Speed Rail
  • Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation
  • Airport Improvement
  • Next Generation Air Transportation System
  • National Infrastructure Investments
  • State Water Pollution Control Revolving Funds
  • State Drinking Water Treatment Revolving Loan Funds
  • Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation
  • Non-Federal Dams and Levees
  • Inland Waterways
  • Harbor Maintenance
  • Dams and Levees
  • The National Park Service
  • The Broadband Initiatives Program
  • The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program
  • The Electric Grid

The bill also called for a National Infrastructure Bank, which would help address the problems with funding and investment I mentioned above.  I look forward to the Senator expanding on his plan in the coming months.

What are your thoughts?  Should the U.S. be worried about its infrastructure, or are the ASCE and other organizations blowing things out of proportion?  Thanks for reading.


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