The Current Condition of Our Nation’s Public Infrastructure
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There’s a lot of talk about the nation’s infrastructure these days.
Discussions of gigantic infrastructure bills have been much in the news. There seems to be a consensus that something needs to be done about the country’s aging, deteriorating public utilities and transportation systems.
A nation’s public infrastructure is the measure of its ability to succeed in the future. It involves everything from transportation, to the delivery of goods, to the movement and processing of drinking water, and the generation of electricity, and the maintenance of communications networks.
So what is the current condition of the United States’ critical infrastructure? Using the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Report Card, let’s take a look at the state and health of America’s public works.
Airports and a healthy aviation network are crucial both to national security and to the movement of people and goods.
And it comes as no surprise that America’s airports were given a poor grade of D+. With an increase to nearly 1.2 billion passengers traveling by air in the United States before the COVID-19 pandemic, delays in travel time were reaching critical mass.
The onset of the pandemic in 2020, however, worked to ease this problem—but this was an artificial situation. Already, air traffic is beginning to return to earlier levels. And, unless airports receive the necessary upgrades, that means the return of delays and congestion.
The nation’s bridges are in overall poor condition, whether from age or structural deficiencies.
To undertake the necessary repairs of the country’s more than 617,000 bridges, an estimated $125 billion needs to be invested in the coming years. The best approach to shoring up structural integrity will probably involve a combination of preventive maintenance and tackling current deterioration.
The score for the nation’s energy infrastructure comes in at a C-, which isn’t anything to write home about.
One of the major issues in power outages and energy infrastructure damage is severe weather. The United States is afflicted by a wide array of severe weather events, including hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and extreme thunderstorms.
Certain measures can “harden” America’s energy infrastructure, including improved resilience, smart planning, and the incorporation of renewables.
And this is to say nothing of recent threats involving cybersecurity and the ability of hackers to attack energy infrastructure. How vulnerable is our nation’s critical infrastructure? That’s a question that only time will tell.
4. Public Transit
Public transit is one of the most vulnerable elements of the nation’s public infrastructure.
The existing public transit system is aging and needs repairs, and transit agencies are experiencing severe shortfalls in funding. Meanwhile, the fact remains that nearly half of the country’s population has no access to public transit.
This is a situation that can only contribute to the congestion and deteriorating air quality of inner cities. It also leads to broad inefficiencies and logistics problems that limit economic growth and activity.
It’s safe to say that the country’s road network is also one of its most important infrastructure assets. People and goods are largely transported by road, and this is why roadway health is such an important metric.
About 40% of the nation’s roads are in poor condition, representing a critical area for infrastructure investment. Plus, the looming prospect of autonomous, self-driving, and connected vehicles presents the challenge of road upgrades to prepare for this futuristic technology.
Ports are a major part of the nation’s economic life. They are also crucial to the movement of goods into and out of the country and support millions of jobs.
This is why it’s good to see that the country’s ports are in overall good condition. Upwards of $163 billion have been earmarked for further spending toward the upkeep of ports during the next four or so years.
However, a critical chokepoint for ports concerns the local infrastructure beyond the gates, where conditions may not be ideal. This can lead to congestion and delays that tend to affect the efficient functioning of a port.
7. Public and National Parks
This is another area where infrastructure has fared rather poorly.
Despite being the first country to create national parks, America’s parks are now beginning to show their age. Increased usage has led to deteriorating trails and bridges, and the National Park Service now requires about half of its assets to maintain repairs.
It might not seem as though public and national parks constitute a nation’s critical infrastructure. But America’s national parks are a part of its self-image and inseparably a part of its national consciousness. So, in a way, they’re just as critical as roadways and energy infrastructure.
As with the nation’s ports, the railways have fared rather well.
This is especially the case with freight networks. Thanks in large part to direct shipper fees, the freight systems have been able to maintain their railways in good repair.
Passenger rails, on the other hand, are dependent on government assistance and support. This has led to a backlog in repairs, with the current price tag running at nearly $50 billion.
The State of the Nation’s Public Infrastructure
The economic and cultural health of a nation is dependent on how sophisticated and well-maintained it’s critical public infrastructure is.
As things stand today, the United States needs a major infrastructural overhaul. The question is, just how committed are the nation’s leaders to ensuring money is spent on the necessary projects, rather than being siphoned off toward useless pork.
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