As readers of this column know, I travel a lot. The last few weeks have been no exception.
What I found in my travels is that it has been striking how poorly we are maintaining our infrastructure. It hasn’t been just bridges and roads, but also the day-to-day, little encounters. This week, one hotel where I stayed had only cold water coming from the faucets and another had only brown water coming from the pipes. Recently, an apartment I was in had let go of security for financial reasons and was recovering from an invasion of mice. Financially tight times? Yes, but there is more to it than that. There have been deferred expenditures and denial from both managers and government about the need for taking care of our infrastructure.
Most of America was built in the last 100 years, and it needs to be maintained. We also have an unemployment rate that has not decreased below 7 percent in years. Discouraged, people have stopped looking for work. We need to do two things and fast: Get people back to work and fix our ailing infrastructure problems.
In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security wrote a report on infrastructure and determined that there needed to be $1.6 trillion invested to attend to our crumbling bridges, roads and other important structures that keep us on the move fiscally. The report says, “The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) indicated that our infrastructure is failing and that it would take an estimated 1.6 trillion to upgrade the existing infrastructure.” It continues, “Other government reports include similar findings and estimate upgrade needs at $225 billion for roads, $202 billion for wastewater treatment, $72 billion for waterways, $18 billion for airports, $11 billion for drinking water treatment, $10 billion for dams and $127 billion for schools.” Those figures do not include electrical wires, waste water, landfills, ports and other important parts of our country that allow for good business and healthy living.
There is another consideration beyond healthy living and good business, and that is security, a concern of the authors of the report, the Department of Homeland Security. In the report, it says, “Aging infrastructure poses a large security risk to the American public. As it becomes apparent (through recent failures) that our infrastructure is already fragile, it makes it easier for terrorist groups and adversaries to exploit our vulnerabilities.”
There have been successful ways to invest in America and to provide jobs, with the most famous being the Work Projects Administration, or WPA, begun in the late 1930s and employing about three million people out of a population of 130 million people. Currently, our unemployment rate from household surveys is about 11.3 million people. We now have a population of 314 million people, so to change our employment rate we would need to fund infrastructure projects by spending more a lot more than the $13.4 billion (which was 6.7 percent of the U.S. economy). The U.S. economy is now at $16.6 trillion so we would need to spend about $2.7 trillion to impact the economy the way the WPA did in the 1930s. That would upgrade the facilities and even do more in terms of adding new projects such as making sure the entire country became part of a fiber network. China made plans to fiber its entire country in 1999, but the U.S. spent time with the age-old fight of private versus public investors. I witnessed one of those disagreements with U.S. senators back then, and it made sure nothing happened and the U.S. did not invest in what needed to happen to keep up with China.
The 2016 presidential candidate who is going to get elected and get the attention of voters is the candidate who can translate infrastructure and security needs that are part and parcel of infrastructure to jobs and prosperity. As Mitchell Erickson Ph.D. says, these investments will make us strong, and he says “A bridge to prosperity; resilient infrastructure makes a resilient nation.”