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The American Infrastructure Crisis

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Deep Dive Article

By Toby Gill

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

February brought us a flurry of bizarre news stories out of the land of the free, such as alleged UFO sightings, Chinese spy balloons being shot out of the sky, and toxic train explosions poisoning the air. Unfortunately, the latter remains a prominent issue, and is emblematic of a much larger, much more worrisome issue in the United States. The issue of infrastructure.

The problem of a crumbling national infrastructure in the US is not exaggerated. Each year, millions of people live without access to broadband or internet. Tens of millions have no clean water. Constantly there are stories of train derailments, chemical spills, collapsing bridges and immense traffic congestion. Decades of under-investment, and deadlock in Congress over infrastructure spending has stifled any real progress in repairing the vast, crumbling American infrastructure networks. With over 160,000 miles of railroad track, 4 million miles of road and tens of thousands of run-down bridges, the task of maintaining this network is a monumental one. But just how bad is America’s infrastructure crisis?

In February this year, social media was swamped with stories of a trail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. A train derailed, and a subsequent controlled burn of the cars was carried out. The damage was immense and is still being calculated. Videos flooded Twitter showing chemicals in nearby waterways. Similar footage shows environmental agency officials fishing out hundreds of dead fish from rivers and lakes; local officials have reported over 45,000 animals have died as a result of exposure to the toxic waste. The director of Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources has said the chemical fall-out is clear and has advised residents that the water is safe once again, but locals are doubtful. Afterall, this isn’t the first chemical disaster in the country.

The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters has counted 30 incidents of chemical exposure in the first two months of 2023. They have recorded 480 chemical incidents since their records began in April 2020. Similar studies carried out by the Guardian have found that, on average, accidental chemical releases occur every two days in America. And what is the root cause of these staggering figures? Underinvestment. Train derailments and faulty pipelines have caused immeasurable damage to the US both economically and socially and have helped foster a culture of mistrust towards government officials.

This issue of underinvestment is a great one. Public investment into US infrastructure as a share of GDP has fallen by more than 40% since the 1960s. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), over 45,000 bridges in the US, and roughly 1 in 5 miles of road, are in poor condition. Similarly, the OECD found that the US invests less in transport than other developed countries – data compiled from 2019 shows that only 0.55% of the US GDP that year was spent on infrastructure investment, as opposed to China’s 5.56%. This spells a costly problem for the US. Polls suggest that a vast majority of Americans support increased investment into infrastructure, and there tends to be bipartisan support for the cause. They just can’t agree on how to fix it.

Before delving into the complexities of the infrastructure debate in US politics, we should first consider how big the problem is for the country. The shoddy national infrastructure is not only damaging local communities and towns but are also significantly impacting the US economy. Historian and American infrastructure expert, Henry Petroski, suggests that delays caused by the poor state of national airports costs the economy $35 billion a year, on average. Similarly, Amtrak, the main provider of passenger rail in the country, has reported a backlog of $30 billion worth of investments. This isn’t to say America has ineffective national transport networks; the US commercial rail systems are some of the most advanced in the world. Yet problems persist. Investment into passenger rail lags behind. It’s important to note that most of the American infrastructure was built and designed in the 1960s. The only issue is the country’s population has more than doubled since then. The country is suffering from an underequipped, underfunded network of road, rail, water, and energy infrastructures.

In 2021, the ASCE suggested there was an “investment gap” of $2.6 trillion this decade that has yet to be provided. And it isn’t limited to transport networks. The issue of access to clean drinking water is a relatively under-discussed issue, bordering on crisis. The Environmental Protection Agency has suggested that American pipes and irrigation are near breaking point and have requested an investment of $632 billion over the next decade to alleviate stress and ensure clean access to water remains. This isn’t for a vast overhaul of the pipelines and irrigation systems; this is simply for maintenance. The task of revitalising America's water systems is enormous. In fact, tens of millions of Americans still get water from lead pipes, despite the irreversible health effects caused by this. A famous example of this issue, that brought it to the national stage, is the town of Flint, Michigan, where the toxic water has exposed 12,000 children to lead poisoning.

So, can America turn it around? As discussed, most Americans think the issue must be dealt with. A huge majority in recent polls support investment into infrastructure. But people can’t agree on how to go about it.

Democrats tend to back direct federal funding as an all-encompassing solution to the issue. Whether financed by debt or higher taxes, this direct method of investment is favoured by the Biden Administration, as evidenced by the recent $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment Act passed in December 2021. This act promises over $110 billion for roads, bridges and other projects, with $41.5 billion going to Amtrak for maintenance and repairs. The bill was passed with a bipartisan majority in the Senate of 69-30, demonstrating the awareness across the political spectrum that something has to be done. But Republicans are wary of any large spending promises.

Republicans are pushing to incentivise private sector investments into infrastructure projects on a more local level, as opposed to direct federal plans. Randal O’Toole, a public policy analyst, has suggested that direct federal spending into infrastructure investment only worsens the issue. O’Toole argues that that large subsidies encourage politicians to carry out grandiose, ego projects instead of directing funds to improve existing infrastructure, thus meaning the federal aid only adds to the issue in the long-term. Critics also suggest that a disproportionate amount of federal funding goes to those towns and regions that are declining in economic influence. While these regions need the support to improve existing infrastructure, many opponents to federal funding projects suggest the money would be better spent investing into the rapidly expanding cities and regions, to bring about real economic benefits in the long-term.

The debate is complex and remains a constant back-and-forth for administrations. Yet the Biden administration is opposed to an over-reliance on private sector investment, arguing that only the Federal Government can tackle the behemoth challenge that is the infrastructure crisis. The bitter polarisation across the political spectrum, coupled with excess lobbying from rail, water and chemical companies has created a less-than unique bulwark to any real progress being made: political deadlock.

Ultimately, to tackle the issue of crumbling infrastructure, direct investment is needed. There needs to be continued bipartisan support for spending packages, but responsibility cannot fall solely on the Federal Government to enact change. The private sector must be championed to help tackle the crisis. There is an excess of red tape and regulation. The process of getting government approval for infrastructure projects is lengthy and unnecessarily bureaucratic, creating delays that often last years. This is evidenced by the Gateway Rail Tunnel Project, a private sector plan to build two tunnels under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. The plan was first proposed in 2011 and projected to cost $13.5 billion. But the project was only granted formal federal approval in May 2021, a decade later. The cost of that delay is hard to measure but could be as high as $10 billion dollars, nearly doubling the initial projected expense.

It is clear that the bureaucracy must be slashed, something Biden has been trying to change. Similarly, his administration is looking to raise taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations alike and has even suggested a global minimum corporate tax rate, to prevent companies from moving overseas for tax purposes. If he can achieve this in the remainder of his term, it could mean billions more funding each year that could be redirected to the infrastructure crisis. But with intransigent opposition from Republicans, and an increasingly polarised political system, Biden faces an uphill battle. Infrastructure is the backbone of America’s economy, and it’s crumbling under the pressure.

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