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Infrastructure in America: Agreeing On the Problem, but Not the Solution
I have watched, like many, numerous weeks devoted to infrastructure go by without any meaningful action from Washington. As the New York Times put it: “Infrastructure Week” is less a date on the calendar than it is a “Groundhog Day”-style fever dream doomed to be repeated.
The lack of investment in the decaying foundation of the United States spreads throughout all areas of the country. Eroding lead pipes contaminates drinking water, bridges and tunnels carrying millions of commuters are at risk of collapse, and past planning decisions have been detrimental to economic growth and social equity. Engineers, academics, and politicians agree that significantly more investment is needed in America’s infrastructure, but have no consensus on a solution.
An American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2017 report card scored the country’s infrastructure ‘D+’, what most consider a failing grade. Yet despite all the talk over the past four years — and even before this administration — the executive and legislative branches have been unable to agree on a comprehensive infrastructure spending plan.
The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was the last attempt to correct some past deficiencies in investment, but it didn’t go far enough. It was enacted to create jobs and provide fiscal stimulus at a time when state and local revenues were falling short. ARRA was temporary and not a long-term solution.
Looking over the years at America’s investment in itself there is a longer, worrisome trend that needs correcting and contributed to the nation’s decaying infrastructure. Federal investment for nondefense purposes has been declining for decades according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO):
It averaged 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the 1970s, declined to an average of 1.6% during the second half of the 1980s, and remained roughly steady until it rose temporarily in 2009, in large part because of ARRA.
Despite the talk, more federal stimulus has stalled and if any action occurs before the election or during a lame duck session of Congress, it its unlikely to commit sizeable (if any) funding toward infrastructure spending. Similar to ARRA, any infrastructure stimulus is likely only to prevent steeper declines in spending by state and local governments, not cure past underinvestment.
Most infrastructure spending occurs at the state and local level. And similar to 2008–2009, state and local revenues are on a long road to recovery following the COVID-19 induced recession. The country needs a long-term strategy, in addition to a short-term boost, toward infrastructure investment.
Biden campaign’s plan: “The Biden Plan to Invest in Middle Class Competitiveness” covers typical broad-based investment in most public sectors. According to their website:
Biden is calling for a transformational investment in our country’s infrastructure and future: $1.3 trillion over ten years to equip the American middle class to compete and win in the global economy, to move the U.S. to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, and to ensure that cities, towns, and rural areas all across our country share in that growth.
But even if we see a Biden-Harris administration start January 20, 2021, future spending plans will depend on the make-up of the Senate. Still, there are notable themes throughout the plan: transit and regional planning, investing in railroads, and revitalizing our cities.
While the polarization of American political discourse can be alienating, rational policy discussions must go on. There are a lot of of policy discussions on the table, each of them pressing, but a new round of infrastructure stimulus and a long-term reinvestment strategy is more vital now then ever before.
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