The images of roads that have seemingly become rivers over the past few weeks in Houston are hard to fathom. Hundreds of miles of roads were impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, whether submerged in feet of water or washed away. Utilities, like electric lines and water treatment plants, also suffered, leaving people in the dark and without water. These are stark reminders of the importance of infrastructure.
But it doesn’t take a major event like a hurricane to realize that. Every day, water main breaks, potholes and delayed flights are increasingly more common. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently released 2017 Infrastructure Report Card graded the nation’s infrastructure an overall grade of “D+” across 16 categories. Bridges, dams, drinking water, aviation, ports, and more, serve as the backbone of our economy. Yet, we so often don’t think much about our infrastructure until it stops working.
The inconveniences of infrastructure disruptions add up. In fact, the average American family loses $3,400 in disposable income each year because of inadequate infrastructure. Travel delays, car repairs after hitting a pothole, and products that cost more because of inefficiencies in the supply chain are all examples of the ways inadequate infrastructure costs each of us. These “unseen taxes” are a waste of money that we could instead be proactively investing into infrastructure, saving each of us, and the nation as a whole, money in the long run.
The good news is there is a growing desire to do something about it. Throughout the election season, President Trump repeatedly called out our ailing infrastructure as a national priority. Democrats have indicated a desire to work in bipartisan fashion to address these needs. The American people are behind them — a recent poll found 89 percent of Americans support an infrastructure bill and believe it’s the issue Congress should focus on.
We should seize this opportunity to modernize our infrastructure and make it something we can be proud of once again.
Making the most of this opportunity starts with truly increasing our investment into our nation’s infrastructure. Currently, our investment equates to 2.5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. By increasing the investment from all levels of government and the private sector to 3.5 percent by 2025, we can close the nation’s $2 trillion infrastructure investment gap.
These investments should be made strategically, focusing on projects that provide substantial, long-term benefits to the public and the economy. Many federal programs have proven successful at channeling infrastructure investments into worthy projects in the past. Bolstering funding to these programs will reduce overhead costs and startup time while still allowing for significant and noticeable improvements across all sectors of U.S. infrastructure. As projects are considered, we need to evaluate not only the upfront costs, but how we will keep our infrastructure in a state of good repair for the long term — an ideal that has too often fallen by the wayside, and led us to where we are today. Just as you consider spending more money up front for a roof that will last longer, so too should we be conscientious investors who think about the long-term benefits of the upfront product.
Smart investments will only be possible with leadership, planning and a clear vision for our nation’s infrastructure. While it’s time to get infrastructure legislation moving, we should take our time in developing and executing a plan. This will take collaboration from all levels of government, along with input from business, labor and nonprofits to ensure we’re putting together a plan and a timeline that will effectively address our infrastructure needs.
Another part of that timeline is the permitting and regulatory process, which the Trump administration has taken steps to streamline. This is a positive stride forward in ensuring priority projects come to fruition more quickly, while saving money.
Part of these considerations must be anticipating the needs of the future and preparing for them. From autonomous vehicles to more frequent storm events to an aging population, there are a lot of factors today’s engineers are considering when it comes to how our infrastructure will need to be designed for the next 10 years, 50 years or 100 years. While there’s no crystal ball, there are commonsense steps we can take now to modernize our infrastructure in a way that improves life today and is also ready to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
Our nation is at a crossroads. We’re halfway there, with bipartisan interest and the support of the American people. Let’s commit to building an American infrastructure system that strengthens and supports our nation’s prosperity.
• Tom Smith is Executive Director and Norma Jean Mattei, P.E., Ph.D., is President of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
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