Infrastructure investment is the way to a better future

Infrastructure is the physical frame on which a society is built. If it is well-designed, state-of-the-art, future-oriented, and considerate of everyone’s needs, it can make the difference between a society that struggles to secure basic sustenance and one that achieves historic levels of human wellbeing.

Infrastructure includes roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, as well as ports, electricity and telecommunications. Well-designed, well-maintained infrastructure connects geographical locations that would otherwise be hard to reach. That makes inclusion of a much larger population into one national fabric possible.

I-70 follows the Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon and other scenic, remote, and forbidding landscapes. Image credit: Joseph Robertson

Infrastructure in the Information Age is also the wider framework for shaping what is possible for people where they live. We cannot fully empower people to partake in a national project of shared opportunity, unless they have the ability to access information, stay healthy, and seek opportunity. Infrastructure is the difference between being bound to circumstance and being free to make your own way.

The new US administration is preparing a massive infrastructure investment package, as part of a wider “Build Back Better” policy agenda, which could mobilize as much as $3 trillion to upgrade opportunity across the country. The plan would cover roads, bridges, waterways, railroads, as well as coastal resilience measures and infrastructure for clean energy, electric vehicles, and electric transit systems.

This is needed, not only to recover from the COVID-related economic crisis, but because American infrastructure has been neglected and underfunded for decades. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives the nation’s infrastructure a grade of C- in its 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

  • The low grade is due to a long-running pattern of neglect and decay. Much of the nation’s infrastructure is no longer state-of-the-art. Most has not had a significant upgrade for several decades.

  • It also finds a water main breaks every 2 minutes, wasting 6 billion gallons of treated clean water every day—a senseless and rising cost carried by thousands of communities.

  • More than 30,000 miles of levees protect 17 million people and more than $2.3 trillion of property. Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey showed what happens when levees are inadequate or not maintained.

By allowing infrastructure to decline and slide towards obsolescence, the US has put its own economic future at risk. Out of date or otherwise inadequate infrastructure is part of the reason it is seen as more cost-effective to source goods from overseas, where new facilities are coming online faster and with more current technology.

Lack of investment in rural economies, including critical transportation and telecommunications infrastructure, has left many rural areas without adequate cellular phone service or broadband internet access. This effectively cuts off a significant part of the 21st century economy and pushes people out of those communities.

An estimated $400 billion of the proposed infrastructure spending would go to climate-related priorities.

  • This is an extremely important investment in the nation’s short-term recovery, but also in its future.

  • The most valuable industries will soon be climate-smart, energy efficiency will catalyze urban and rural investment, and climate resilient infrastructure is fast becoming a baseline imperative.

  • The research required to achieve the needed innovations also would see a significant increase in funding.

  • All of this will help secure a stronger economic future, and one in which communities and regions are safer and more fiscally solvent.

A 2020 poll found 80% of Americans support increased infrastructure spending, including bipartisan majorities. That is more than support reforming healthcare (77%), expanding access to high-quality childhood education (72%), or ending the opioid crisis (72%). 97% said infrastructure was at least “somewhat important”.

Investing to secure 2-3 generations of infrastructure-driven economic improvement is vital for building opportunity and quality-of-life for all Americans. This should not be a partisan fight; everyone should be working together on this for the optimal overall benefit, because this is a genuine chance to secure a better future.