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America’s Infrastructure Problem and How to Fix It

August 24, 2017
America’s infrastructure is in disrepair. Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), an organization made up of over 150,000 civil engineers, gives the United States an “infrastructure report card.” In March the organization gave the U.S. a grade of “D+,” an improvement from a “D” in 2009. [1]

This grade is unnerving because it includes all aspects of U.S. infrastructure from aviation to waste management. Anyone who flies out of New York City can see how poorly managed LaGuardia Airport is, however, no one can know if their waste is being safely managed or if the bridges they are going over can handle the weight of their car. It is not only unsafe but according to ASCE America’s failing infrastructure will cost the U.S. economy too. By 2025, the U.S. will lose 3.9 trillion dollars of gross domestic product, 7 trillion in lost business sales and the losses of over 2.5 million American jobs. [2] The effects of failing infrastructure and the need for the federal government to improve it are obvious, yet why isn’t the government doing anything?

President Trump made a promise during the campaign to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and, since taking office, has created several initiatives attempting to do so. During the campaign, President Trump promised to unveil a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan over the course of the next eight years with no tax hikes. [3] New infrastructure projects, under his plan, would largely be done by private companies. His plan would give a “tax credit to private companies to finance projects, while the companies would take equity investments in the projects.” [4] President Trump’s plan would also allow private companies to generate a cash flow through tax revenue, “essentially privatizing much of the new infrastructure and making riskier investments more palatable.” [5]

Image: US Infrastructure Report Card Since 2001. Source: CNBC, American Society of Civil Engineers.

Image: US Infrastructure Report Card Since 2001. Source: CNBC, American Society of Civil Engineers.

Since President Trump took office in January, he has taken steps to make his infrastructures plans a reality. The President designated June 3rd to June 10th as “infrastructure week.” [6] During the week, Trump announced plans to improve “Air Traffic Control, address the inland waterway system, and improve project efficiency.” [7] In addition, he signed an executive order aimed at improving the efficiency and timeliness of infrastructure projects. Since taking office, the president has made it clear that he plans to follow up on his campaign promise to improve America’s crumbling infrastructure.

Despite the President’s campaign initiatives to improve America’s infrastructure, his plans will require support from Congress in order to be successful. The debate among politicians usually boils down to the cost. No one would argue that improving U.S. infrastructure for a fair price is a waste. The problem, however, is finding that fair price. Noah Smith, an author for Bloomberg, pointed out this debate in a recent opinion writing that nothing will get done “because [the federal government] ends up either spending too much money or living with potholed roads and trains that never arrive.” [8] Another problem is the fact that many projects are handled by local and state communities, which because of their size cannot run a deficit. In addition, term limits mean that politicians may not be around to see the consequences of their maintenance cuts. [9] Unfortunately, the only time that debate over infrastructure arises in when it fails as is the case with Washington D.C.’s current metro system failure.

It is the belief of many, including myself, that the U.S. must improve all aspects of its infrastructure in order to maintain economic prosperity. This requires not only help from the President, but also from Congress. Not since the New Deal under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has the U.S. taken on a major infrastructure project. The New Deal converted dirt roads to concrete ones, built airports and brought electricity to all corners of the nation. The economic benefits of FDR’s New Deal were unilateral. Through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), 3.2 million people were employed and a staggering 650,000 miles of roads were constructed, 78,000 bridges built, 125,000 civilian and military buildings erected, and 800 airports were constructed or improved. [10] Now it is “eight decades later, and America’s arteries of transportation, responsible for the lifeblood of our economy and way of life, are crumbling.” [11]

Although infrastructure spending is not the “sexy” way to spend federal funds, it is one in which the economic impact is mighty. Millions of Americans drive to work every day for their job. Wasted fuel on deteriorating road costs Americans 100 billion dollars of wasted fuel and time each year. [12] In addition, it is dangerous to have aging infrastructure. A perfect example is the water contamination that occurred in Flint, Michigan two years ago. The water was contaminated with lead and was rendered not potable for several months. The water systems can be over a century old in some cases in the Midwest, yet no federal effort has been made to improve them. [13] Fortunately, states like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York have created funds to create cleaner and more sustainable water sources. [14]

For America’s infrastructure to reach a “B” on its next report card in 2021 or in 2025, the federal government will need to make several changes. First, it much increases spending. In Europe, 5% of GDP is spent on infrastructure projects, compared to a measly 2% in the U.S. [15] Politicians need to realize that high-quality infrastructure is vital to the U.S. economy and that most reasonable costs are sure to pay off long-term. Second, Congress should create “a unified department to merge the federal highway, transit, aviation, maritime, and railroad administrations; the Army Corps of Engineers; and the Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs” to reduce inefficiencies and better secure federal funding. [16] Third, the U.S. needs to raise the gas tax to fund infrastructure projects. The tax should only fund infrastructure projects and not be used to reduce the deficit. Finally, Americans should not fear private investment. President Trump’s plan to encourage private investment must be met with optimism, not scrutiny. The fact that private companies work for profit should not deter his proposal in fact “cities and states should allow both the public and the private sectors to submit unsolicited proposals for innovative infrastructure projects.” [17] Through these changes, the U.S. can start using its high-tech infrastructure to its economic advantage, rather than the current situation which wastes billions of dollars each year.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

References

  [1] “Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap For America’s Economic Future.” Infrastructure Report Card, American Society of Civil Engineers, 2016, www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2016-FTA-Report-Close-the-Gap.pdf.

  [2] “Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap For America’s Economic Future.” Infrastructure Report Card , American Society of Civil Engineers, 2016, www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2016-FTA-Report-Close-the-Gap.pdf.

  [3] Bryan, Bob. “Trump Campaign Unveils Plan to Spend $1 Trillion on Roads, Bridges, and Other Infrastructure with No Tax Hikes.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 27 Oct. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/trump-campaign-1-trillion-infrastructure-plan-with-no-tax-hike-2016-10.

  [4] Bryan, Bob. “Trump Campaign Unveils Plan to Spend $1 Trillion on Roads, Bridges, and Other Infrastructure with No Tax Hikes.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 27 Oct. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/trump-campaign-1-trillion-infrastructure-plan-with-no-tax-hike-2016-10.

  [5] Bryan, Bob. “Trump Campaign Unveils Plan to Spend $1 Trillion on Roads, Bridges, and Other Infrastructure with No Tax Hikes.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 27 Oct. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/trump-campaign-1-trillion-infrastructure-plan-with-no-tax-hike-2016-10.

  [6] Merica, Dan. “Trump Wraps up Ill-Timed ‘Infrastructure Week’.” CNN, Cable News Network, 9 June 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/06/09/politics/donald-trump-infrastructure-week/index.html.

  [7] “President Trump Kicks Off Infrastructure Week.” The White House, The United States Government, 6 June 2017, www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2017/06/06/president-trump-kicks-infrastructure-week.

  [8] Smith, Noah. “The U.S. Has Forgotten How to Do Infrastructure.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 31 May 2017, www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-05-31/the-u-s-has-forgotten-how-to-do-infrastructure.

  [9] Surowiecki, James. “Inside America’s Infrastructure Problem.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 18 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/18/inside-americas-infrastructure-problem.

  [10] Blitz, Matt. “When America’s Infrastructure Saved Democracy.” Popular Mechanics, 23 Jan. 2017, www.popularmechanics.com/technology/infrastructure/a24692/fdr-new-deal-wpa-infrastructure/.

  [11] Blitz, Matt. “When America’s Infrastructure Saved Democracy.” Popular Mechanics, 23 Jan. 2017, www.popularmechanics.com/technology/infrastructure/a24692/fdr-new-deal-wpa-infrastructure/.

  [12] Blitz, Matt. “When America’s Infrastructure Saved Democracy.” Popular Mechanics, 23 Jan. 2017, www.popularmechanics.com/technology/infrastructure/a24692/fdr-new-deal-wpa-infrastructure/.

  [13] Kane, Joseph, and Robert Puentes. “Flint’s Water Crisis Highlights Need for Infrastructure Investment and Innovation.” Brookings, Brookings, 14 Mar. 2017, www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/01/13/flints-water-crisis-highlights-need-for-infrastructure-investment-and-innovation/.

  [14] Kane, Joseph, and Robert Puentes. “Flint’s Water Crisis Highlights Need for Infrastructure Investment and Innovation.” Brookings, Brookings, 14 Mar. 2017, www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/01/13/flints-water-crisis-highlights-need-for-infrastructure-investment-and-innovation/.

  [15] Klein, Aaron. “How to Fix America’s Infrastructure.” Foreign Affairs, Council of Foreign Relations , 6 Dec. 2016, www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/how-fix-america-s-infrastructure.

[  16] Klein, Aaron. “How to Fix America’s Infrastructure.” Foreign Affairs, Council of Foreign Relations , 6 Dec. 2016, www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/how-fix-america-s-infrastructure.

  [17] Klein, Aaron. “How to Fix America’s Infrastructure.” Foreign Affairs, Council of Foreign Relations , 6 Dec. 2016, www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/how-fix-america-s-infrastructure.

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  • <h3>National Bureau of Economic Research (Public Use Data Archive)</h3><p><img width="180" height="43" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/43/478_nber.rev.1407530465.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image478 lw_align_right" data-max-w="329" data-max-h="79"/>Founded in 1920, the <strong>National Bureau of Economic Research</strong> is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works. The NBER is committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community.</p><p> Quick Link to <strong>Public Use Data Archive</strong>: <a href="http://www.nber.org/data/" target="_blank">http://www.nber.org/data/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>MapStats</h3><p> A feature of FedStats, MapStats allows users to search for <strong>state, county, city, congressional district, or Federal judicial district data</strong> (demographic, economic, and geographic).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/" target="_blank">http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The World Bank Data (U.S.)</h3><p><img width="130" height="118" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image484 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1406" data-max-h="1275"/>The <strong>World Bank</strong> provides World Development Indicators, Surveys, and data on Finances and Climate Change.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states" target="_blank">http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Aviation Administration: Accident & Incident Data</h3><p><img width="100" height="100" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image80 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 3x" data-max-w="550" data-max-h="550"/>The NTSB issues an accident report following each investigation. These reports are available online for reports issued since 1996, with older reports coming online soon. The reports listing is sortable by the event date, report date, city, and state.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/" target="_blank">http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>NOAA National Climatic Data Center</h3><p><img width="200" height="198" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image483 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 3x" data-max-w="954" data-max-h="945"/>NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for preserving, monitoring, assessing, and providing public access to the Nation’s treasure of <strong>climate and historical weather data and information</strong>.</p><p> Quick link to home page: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCDC’s climate and weather datasets, products, and various web pages and resources: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links</a></p><p> Quick link to Text & Map Search: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>