The 2010’s were a turning point for infrastructure, but we can not stop now
By Zack Johnston
Now is the time of year for holiday merriment, family gatherings, and for the flood of year-end retrospective news articles to start pouring into our news feeds. As we close out the year, we look back at what lessons the past twelve months have taught us.
This time around, however, we are in the unique position of not only ringing in a new year, but a new decade. We will be turning the last page on an extraordinary chapter of history, so let us take an even further step back and look at how the 2010’s forged our world, and specifically, our constructed world.
It’s no secret that partly because of the grinding pace of Washington, our infrastructure systems have suffered throughout the years. As federal lawmakers become thwarted in the world of electoral politics, the overall level of results dwindles. With our hustle and bustle lifestyles and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s no wonder concern for infrastructure development has taken a backseat over the years.
But while lawmakers argue and folks go about their daily lives, our infrastructure systems – some of which are over a century old – have experienced increasing demand with little improvements. From our roads and highways to our water treatment systems, America’s infrastructure has suffered from a lack of innovation and upkeep throughout the last 10 years, while the ways in which we use infrastructure have been rapidly changing.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues its “report card” for the state of the country’s infrastructure, offering comprehensive analysis and solutions for upgrading. In 2009, the ASCE looked closely at fifteen different infrastructure categories and gave a resounding cumulative grade of D. The highest scoring category, solid waste, got a C+. Every faction of infrastructure examined was found to be either mediocre, or in poor condition, according to the report. It was also estimated that the investments needed for improvements would total $2.2 trillion over the course of five years.
It was also around this time that the economy was emerging from the recession, and a newly elected president began trying to right the ship.
Just a few weeks before the report was published, President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus package. This $787 billion piece of legislation included over $65 billion toward projects related to transportation, water systems, and the environment. It was the largest commitment to public works since the Eisenhower Interstate System.
While Obama’s stimulus package did not fully lift America’s infrastructure system into the 21st Century, it did set the tone for the coming year on how we prioritize and fund infrastructure development on the federal level.
Part of the problem then was the same one that still occur today. Due to regulatory setbacks at the local level, many of the so-called “shovel-ready” projects still took months or years to begin.
It was perhaps the first in a long string of examples from the last decade that illustrates the colossal need for further resources, and the unfortunate ineptitude of federal authorities. Despite the usual political gridlock, however, the stimulus package did eventually lead to some much needed infrastructure advancement.
“Investments improved more than 42,000 miles of roads and almost 2,700 bridges; they paid for 850 new transit facilities, nearly 12,000 new buses, and nearly 700 new rail cars,” according to the Brookings Institute.
When it came time for the next ASCE report in 2013, America’s infrastructure had shown slight improvement. The overall cumulative grade rose to a D+, with the solid waste category bumping up to a B-. In fact, each category saw slight improvement or remained the same from 2009-2013. However, this reflects a state of stagnation rather than progress, as the report projected a needed investment of $3.6 trillion by the end of the decade.
The report also outlined solutions to bring an end to the deadlock: more robust leadership on renewal, a focus on sustainability, and developing plans for enhancement and ways to pay for them.
Easier said than done.
Over the course of the next few years our cumulative grade remained a D+. The 2017 report was a bit of a mixed bag, with some sectors improving and others getting worse. This is indicative of two trends. First, reaching consensus in Washington has unfortunately only gotten worse, as no substantive infrastructure bill has made it into law. Faced with this reality, the other more recent trend is the rise of local and state-lead initiatives to bring our systems to a state of good repair.
As we shift into a new era, the focus for many infrastructure leaders is now on preparing for the future. We need systems that cater to our modern needs, and that can withstand the current and future effects of the climate crisis.
In just a few short years it will be time for yet another report card, and only then will we see if these trends will show real progress, or just another abysmal GPA.
Zack Johnston is an Assistant Editor for American Infrastructure Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.