America’s Crumbling Infrastructure, Traffic Congestion Yield Economic Obstacles

Imagine what $3.6 trillion looks like. That’s what our country needs to come up with by 2020 in order to simply maintain our infrastructure, let alone build and integrate creative architectural structures and technological innovations. Every few years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) puts out a report card that grades America’s infrastructure. In 2013, we scored a D+! This study stemmed from analysis of dilapidated roadways, insufficient waterways, and a loud, desperate cry to enter the 21st century. The harsh reality is that we are lagging behind many other developed countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Spain, and South Korea to name a few. In a recent article by Business Insider, The United States ranked 15th for railroad infrastructure and 14th for quality of roads. Yikes!

While this issue is a nuisance for everyone, the crumbling infrastructure and road congestion is costing the trucking industry over 141 million hours in wasted time, according to The  Department of Transportation’s (DOT) National Freight Strategic Plan stated that road congestion cost the trucking industry about $27 billion in 2015 due to lost time and excess fuel consumption. Additionally, according to the DOT, the nation’s state of good repair and preventative maintenance backlog is at an all-time high of $86 billion, and it is growing by an estimated $2.5 billion each year. An additional $8.2 billion over current spending levels from all levels of government is needed annually to spend down the current backlog over the next 20 years.

There are several ways that our collapsing infrastructure and traffic congestion affects the nation’s overall economic productivity. Congested roads cause shipping delays and in turn, raise product prices. When traffic is slowed, businesses require more drivers and equipment to deliver goods and more inventory when deliveries are unreliable. With constant bridge and road closures, truck drivers are constantly rerouted off the highways. This leads to slower movement and adds to shipping costs, which everyone pays for.

Looking at the bigger picture, just as passenger cars compete for space on the highways, commuter trains and freight trains compete for space on the railroad network in metropolitan areas, according to a recent article by the DOT. Many businesses have invested over the years in their own supply chains. However, investments in leading edge supply chain technology and freight auditing goes to waste if trucks cannot deliver on time. For being a car-centric country, our GDP relative to spending on roads is not reflected.

On the other hand, the growth of freight is a major contributor to congestion, increasing traffic in urban areas. Long-distance freight movements in particular contribute to the nation’s congestion problem. The growing freight demand increases recurring congestion at bottlenecks and where there is simply not enough room. Congested freight hubs include international gateways such as ports, airports, border crossings, and major domestic terminals and transfer points, such as rail yards.

A journalist from US News recently spoke with Robert Puentes, Director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution. In the interview, Puentes said, “We need to stop talking about infrastructure as an engineering prospect and more as an economic one.” According to the article, only about 27 percent of federal spending is designated to the sectors of transportation and water.  For other modes including freight rail, there is almost no federal investment. Infrastructure has been difficult to tackle because of how broad it is.

Many agree that the federal government has not made infrastructure a big enough priority. However, because the term “infrastructure” is so broad and consists of so many projects across the nation, Puentes says that we may not necessarily want the federal government getting involved with all of the projects that need to be done. Although Democrats and Republicans agree that our infrastructure is in trouble, there has yet to be a consensus on where the funding should come from and which projects should receive priority.

If you just look at surface transportation like roads, bridges and public transit, the federal government did pass a $300 billion law in 2015 that helped, but ultimately only covered the minimum amount of work that Congress had to do. Puentes says that when we talk about things like advanced industries and technology, or connecting low-income workers to economic opportunity, there are infrastructure components to those things. Eleven percent of the American workforce is employed in infrastructure sectors. When asked where Puentes sees this going in the next few years, he replied, “A lot of it is going to come down to the resources. We’re still a rich country, but we’re not making the right kinds of investments. We’re not making enough investments…We have to stop just hoping that something will happen down the pike. We need to be specific about where the money’s coming from.”

So, the next question is “How do we pay for it?” While the federal government does currently play a role, state and local governments perhaps play an even larger role. They key is collaboration between federal, state and local governments, along with philanthropic efforts.

The good news is that the ASCE Board of Direction has endorsed updated strategies to improve the state of America’s infrastructure and reduce the life-cycle cost of infrastructure by 50 percent. The society is expected to complete the work on the 2017 report card, which is scheduled for release in March 2017. The board will work with stakeholders and allies, such as environmentalists and health professionals, who are affected by building infrastructure.

You can help by letting your voice be heard. You can stand behind federal, state and local initiatives to fund infrastructure improvement. Hopefully, our leaders can come together and not just propose, but execute a solution because our livelihood depends on it.