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Why ‘infrastructure’ may be the new political buzzword

David Gura May 14, 2014
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One of the biggest economic problems facing the nation has become something of a buzzword in politics of late: “infrastructure.”

President Barack Obama was in Tarrytown, New York on Wednesday, just up the Hudson River from New York City, talking about the need to upgrade infrastructure, in the shadow of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which is being replaced.

The President isn’t the only one who’s been talking about infrastructure, and it’s enough to make you wonder if it’s the new “addicted to foreign oil,” i.e., something politicians say over and over again, knowing full well how hard it is to change.

“We laid in place a very good infrastructure, but a lot of those investments were made 50, 80, 100 years ago, and it is time for the U.S. to upgrade and modernize,” says Casey Dinges, a senior managing director at the American Society of Engineers (ASCE), a group that gave U.S. infrastructure a “D+” grade last year.

According to Rob Puentes, who directs the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, the numbers are staggering.

“I mean we have 63,000 bridges that are structurally deficient,” he says. “Two hundred and forty thousand water mains break every year.”

 You can get lost in those numbers, and that is part of the problem. It helps, Puentes says, to talk about what constitutes infrastructure. Yes, it is roads and bridges and waterways, but it is also broadband – pipes of a different sort.

“It’s not true that Americans don’t understand this,” Puentes argues. “When they’re confronted with these choices, they are willing to pay for infrastructure projects.”

And they have demonstrated that at the local level. States have raised gas taxes, to pay for renovations and modernization, and cities are improving their infrastructure.

But there’s another problem, according to Rae Zimmerman a professor of planning and public administration at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Fixing infrastructure often becomes urgent only after disasters happen.

“And then there seems to be a lull, and then it comes back, and a lull, and comes back, and hopefully, this time it is going to stick,” she says, noting the fact that we are talking about infrastructure now, absent a big disaster, can’t be such a bad thing.

To illustrate part of the infrastructure problem facing the U.S., check out a map showing the 20 worst bottlenecks of traffic congestion, as well as the metropolitan regions around the country with the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges, organized by population size. All data is based on the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, from the American Society of Civil Engineers and the 2012 Metropolitan Bridge Rankings, from Transportation for America.

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