Kristina Swallow and Greg DiLoreto: Seven Steps to Make America’s Infrastructure Great Again
January 16, 2018
Communities around the US, families, and friends face long commutes, feel the costs of broken pipes, and suffer through increasingly frequent power outages. Last March, the American Society of Civil Engineers released the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, giving the nation an overall grade of D+ across 16 infrastructure categories.1 It came with a call to action: now is the time to address the $2 trillion funding deficit to meet today’s needs and ensure our infrastructure is built for the future.
Ten months later, infrastructure seems to continually be the “on deck, next in line” priority. Meanwhile, our inadequate infrastructure costs each American family $3,400 a year (EDRG 2016). Think about what that money could mean to your family and the economy. Instead of celebrating progress on solving the problem, we’re paying an unseen tax of $9 a day because Congress and the administration are procrastinating on addressing our nation’s infrastructure needs. States and localities are doing what they can themselves, while looking to the federal government to reinvigorate the partnership for its share of investment.
But all hope is not lost. Eighty-nine percent of Americans want Congress to pass an infrastructure package. When infrastructure gets its legislative moment, here are seven things the federal government should do to create and execute a major infrastructure package, ensure our infrastructure can meet growing communities’ needs, and drive our economy forward as it has in the past.
1. Seek effective policy ideas through stakeholder engagement while crafting the legislation.
Infrastructure encompasses many areas. The Infrastructure Report Card includes 16 categories: aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit, and wastewater. There are legitimate arguments that broadband should be included in an infrastructure package, as its importance in our nation will continue to grow, including in the operation of other infrastructure.
With so many interests, a lot of conversations and idea sharing need to occur to develop a package that addresses our infrastructure’s varied needs. Funding works differently for roads than for drinking water and even more so for power and rail, with varying levels of involvement from government funding, private investors, and public rate payers. Similarly, the regulatory process is unique in each area, and each state has diverse needs, as do urban cities versus rural towns.
Developing a package that effectively encompasses these wide-ranging considerations requires stakeholder involvement. This is often the case when developing an infrastructure bill. For example, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure did excellent work when preparing for and writing the Water Resources Development Act in 2016, which eventually passed as part of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act in December 2016. The committee is already holding roundtable discussions in preparation for the next authorization bill in 2018 because the members understand and see value in engaging stakeholders. This must be continued and enhanced to develop an effective infrastructure package across many infrastructure categories.
2. Project selection needs to emphasize long-term benefits to the economy and the public.
With new investments, we can improve the public’s health and safety, enhance quality of life, and strengthen our economic engine. The economic cost of inadequate infrastructure is significant. As a nation, we will lose $3.9 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025 if we do not address our ailing infrastructure (EDRG 2016). To prevent these losses, we need to select projects that will have transformational, long-lasting impact on communities. Some projects are already “shovel ready,” or far along in their development. Many projects, however, may only be at their initial conception, unable to advance because of the impracticality of continuing with no anticipated funding.
As we did during the transformational creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, we need to think about what infrastructure requirements we need for the next 100 years and ensure we modernize our infrastructure to prepare us to compete in the future. Through thoughtful project selection, we will strengthen our economy and improve our nation’s quality of life.
3. The cost of a project over its entire life span—including designing, building, operating, and maintaining the infrastructure—must be taken into account.
Much of our infrastructure is in poor condition because it is past its useful design life. It was built to last 50 years. Though chronically underfunded, we’ve managed, through thoughtful and careful maintenance, to extend the life of these facilities. Some facilities are decades beyond their useful life, we no longer see the same utility, and it is no longer cost-effective to maintain. It needs to be rebuilt. The package should recognize that we may have to do the same in the future, and it should require us to take the long view. By considering not only the up-front design and construction costs, but also the long-term operation and maintenance costs, we can better identify which projects offer the best return on investment and ensure we have the funding to maintain our initial investments throughout their entire service lives.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recognizes civil engineers’ leadership role in addressing our infrastructure challenges, so our “Grand Challenge” is a call to action for the entire civil engineering profession to increase the value of infrastructure and increase and optimize infrastructure investments by transforming the way we plan, deliver, operate, and maintain our nation’s infrastructure.2 Central to the Grand Challenge is a commitment to rethinking what’s possible through total life cycle cost assessments, innovation, performance-based standards, and enhanced resiliency, with the goal of reducing the life cycle cost of infrastructure by 2025.
Using technological and design advancements, we can build infrastructure that carries our nation through the next few generations. We can modernize our infrastructure to prepare us for the future and make a lasting impact with immediate benefits.
4. Projects should be built sustainably and resiliently.
To maximize our return on investment, projects should be built resiliently (to withstand extreme weather and other hazard events) and sustainably (incorporating the “triple bottom line” of economic, social, and environmental benefits). By ensuring our infrastructure can rebound quickly, and by balancing economic, community, and environmental needs, we will set ourselves up for infrastructure that can meet future needs and build the best projects at the least cost to our communities.
Over the past year, we have seen many examples of the need for more resilient infrastructure. Communities devastated by hurricanes and wildfires have demonstrated that we must design our communities to withstand these and similar disasters.
Similarly, by making infrastructure more sustainable, we ensure communities have the capacity and opportunity to maintain and improve its quality of life indefinitely, without degrading the quantity, quality, or availability of economic, environmental, and social resources. By making our infrastructure sustainable, we limit the current and future strain it has on the economy, environment, and community.
5. Federal investment should leverage state, local, and private investment, not replace these critical sources of infrastructure funding.
A new infrastructure package must ensure that state, local, and private investment is coupled with federal funding and leveraged to increase overall investment in our infrastructure.
Addressing the $2 trillion investment gap is a duty that falls on all levels of government and the private sector. We can restore our competitive advantage by increasing investments as a nation from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of US GDP by 2025. The federal government needs to be a leader in this partnership, but we will only improve our infrastructure if it is a collaborative effort.
States are increasing their funding to address infrastructure needs; 26 states increased their transportation funding in the past five years. Harnessing additional federal investment can further expedite and enhance the improvements made through this increased investment.
Public-private partnerships (P3s) also offer revenue and can be a valuable financing tool for certain types of projects. The US is behind other countries in implementing P3s, and each state has different laws to govern their use. When appropriate, and with the public’s interest safeguarded, private investment can address infrastructure needs.
6. Fix the Highway Trust Fund.
The federal Highway Trust Fund is the designated account to pay for the federal share of roads, bridges, and transit. It was designed to receive revenue exclusively through the federal gas tax. But because the tax has not been raised in 24 years, the 18.4-cent user fee has lost 40 percent of its purchasing power to inflation while the costs of materials and labor have increased. This has led to a shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund’s available funding. Our nation’s surface transportation infrastructure accounts for half the infrastructure investment gap, and restoring the trust fund would go a long way toward closing the gap.
The fund has teetered on insolvency several times, mainly while surface transportation bills have muddled their way through Congress. The frequent uncertainty is problematic to states, who rely on the federal government to provide its share of funding. For most states, this federal funding makes up about half the investment for capital projects.
Congress has shored up the fund with $140 billion in general fund transfers since 2008. In 2020, when the current authorization bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, expires, the shortfall will be nearly $18 billion a year, or $90 billion over the five years of program reauthorization. We should not wait until the FAST Act’s reauthorization to address the Highway Trust Fund’s solvency. A major infrastructure package presents a great opportunity to be proactive.
To ensure adequate and stable funding for America’s highways, the trust fund needs a long-term, sustainable funding source. The most direct solution is to raise the gas tax at least 25 cents a gallon and tie future increases to inflation to restore and maintain its purchasing power, fill the funding deficit, increase investment to modernize our surface transportation network, and work toward a transition that will ensure reliable funding for the future, as cars become more fuel efficient.
7. Fund existing federal programs.
Many programs have proven successful in selecting worthy projects and distributing funding to them. Often, these programs require matching funds for the state or locality to qualify for the federal dollars. Providing more funding to existing programs rather than creating new programs will reduce overhead costs and start-up time while allowing for significant and noticeable improvements across all sectors of US infrastructure.
Programs that have proven effective and that should be the basis for selecting projects and channeling increased investment include the following:
- The Clean Water State Revolving Fund
- The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund
- The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Program
- The Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields and Superfund cleanup programs
- The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) NextGen air traffic control system
- The FAA’s Airport Improvement Program
- The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund
- The Inland Waterway Trust Fund
- The National Dam Safety Program
- The High Hazard Dam Rehabilitation Program
- The Levee Safety Program
- Priority projects in the US Army Corps of Engineers project backlog
- US Department of Transportation (DOT) Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants
- US DOT Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery discretionary grants
As the administration and Congress wade into tackling our infrastructure crisis, they must bring stakeholders together to share ideas and thoughtfully debate an effective path forward. Infrastructure affects people, businesses, and the economy in a way no other policy area does. America is at a crossroads. Now is the time to renew, modernize, and invest in the backbone of our economy. The longer we wait, the more it will cost.
- See the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 infrastructure report card at https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/.
- See “The ASCE Grand Challenge,” American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed December 11, 2017, https://collaborate.asce.org/ascegrandchallenge/home.
EDRG (Economic Development Research Group). 2016. Failure to Act: Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers.