Top 10 Reasons the USA Must Improve Its Infrastructure
The current infrastructure of the United States currently ranks around 19th in the world in regards to its quality. America has been eclipsed by countries like Spain, which suffers regular devastating economic crises and Oman, a Gulf County Collective state that is known for its desert and mountains rather than for its infrastructure.
As America move into a national election year, the idea that this is the best country in the world will continue to be shouted from every rooftop. But, according to the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Competitiveness Report, some of the only areas that America ranks in the top five spots in the world include: the availability of airline seats, rate of inflation, redundancy costs and venture capital availability.
The quality of math and science in education currently ranks as 49th in the world. The quality of the electricity supply sits at spot 30. The soundness of banks takes the 58th top spot in the world, and the burden of government regulation sits at spot 80.
The report contains the rankings of 158 different countries around the world. This means that America is not just compared to stable and established states like the United Kingdom and Germany. America’s infrastructure is also ranked against developing states, war-torn states and states that have autocratic regimes.
According to the World Economic Forum, there are plenty of areas for improvement. But infrastructure seems like a great place to start. Here are the top 10 reasons that the USA needs to improve its infrastructure.
America Received a D+ Grade on the 2013 Infrastructure Report Card
The World Economic Forum is not alone in ranking America’s infrastructure just within the top 20 in the world. The American Society of Civil Engineers also gave America the grade of D+ on its 2013 Infrastructure Report Card. For reference, a D on a report card correlates to a grade referred to as ‘Poor’.
Of course, it’s not all bad. America’s bridges received a C+ and public parks and recreation received a C- minus. Other average areas included ports and rail systems. But the only ‘good’ grade America received was in its treatment of solid waste.
In nearly every other area of public infrastructure, America was rated at a D+ or lower.
The report card is issued every four years. What 2013s grade says is that America’s infrastructure could not only be better, it could be a lot better. Investment in infrastructure is essential for healthy communities and a healthy economy. Letting infrastructure slip further would almost certain have negative impacts on every other aspect of life in America.
These grades were given after being evaluated against funding, future need, public safety and resilience, operation and maintenance and capacity.
Hazardous Waste Remains a Problem
According to the EPA, one out of every four Americans lives within three miles of a site containing hazardous waste. While there has been success in clean-ups in recent years, this figure is still very high.
Hazardous waste is anything that could damage the health of people or the environment. It can be found in many forms including solids, liquids, gases or even sludge. Most hazardous waste is the product of commercial operations, but it can also include pesticides or waste from manufacturing.
Part of the issue of hazardous waste remains in dealing with the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. During these years, unprecedented amounts of waste were created, and it was rarely removed or disposed of in a safe manner.
America is also still dealing with the runoff and waste of mines that have not been in operation for a century. These mines are often unknown or hard to find until time or another catalyst causes them to burst and for waste to leak into the surrounding area.
While the EPA works hard to keep commercial properties and other parties in check, it is hard to keep up with the sheer amount of waste created both over time and in the present.
Nowhere is this plainer than in the exploration of America’s brownfields. Brownfields are sites that are known to have hazardous waste. A brownfield can be a site that holds an abandoned factor, an abandoned gas station, or any former business that would use harmful chemicals or substances. There are around 425,000 brownfields in America and those are only the ones that the EPA knows about.
Schools Are Lagging Behind
If you type ‘improve infrastructure in schools’ into Google, the top hits that you find are related to improving education in developing and emerging countries. America does not usually cross the minds of people interested in improving global education
But, almost half of the public school buildings in America were built to house a place of education for the baby boomer generation. Although the baby boomers are now beginning to retire, school enrollment is not in decline. In fact, it is suggested to increase through the year 2019.
But, as enrollment increases in schools, funding continues to decline. Both local and national budgets have been slashed. Federal spending on the construction of new schools is now only $10 billion, only half of what was spent before 2008.
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Education suggested that $127 billion needed to be poured into the nation’s schools to bring them up to a higher standard. But since then, that number has more than doubled. The amount of money needed to improve schools today actually reaches $270 billion.
The difficulty in school infrastructure lies in that the main source of funding comes from the state and local government and not from the federal government. Traditionally, the money for education has come through property taxes. This is the reason that there can be such huge education disparities between certain states.
Some studies have shown that there is a correlation between the school facilities and how well students perform. However, it should seem like common sense that students who spend eight hours each day in moldy, stuffy and overcrowded classrooms do not perform as well as students working in bright new campuses.
America’s Roads Are Congested
Road congestion is aggravating at the best of times, especially when there is no escape. About 42% of America’s major highways suffer heavily from congestion, and there seems little to be done about this in many cases because public transportation is not an option for 45% of American households. But, the traffic sitting on the highway includes both passenger vehicles and transit vehicles. Shipping and transportation vehicles are necessary to keep our country moving. As a result, the heavy usage of these roads results in the need for greater maintenance but the costs are much higher than asphalt.
Around 32% of the major roads in the United States are in less than adequate condition. The state of America’s road system costs $67 billion a year in car maintenance, which is broken down to $324 per driver each year. This is a large amount of money to spend because of deep potholes or other menaces that are waiting to be fixed.
It is suggested that $101 billion is wasted every year on both time and gasoline by cars waiting in endless traffic. That translates to about 1.9 billion gallons of fuel. Americans also spend 34 hours a year on average sitting in congestion. That 34 hours could be spent at home, work or even making up for the lack of sleep that the average American adult gets every night.
America’s Airports Do Not Even Rank on Many Lists
It’s not difficult to pick out American citizens at an international airport. They are always the first ones to tell you to strip down at security. They are also always three hours early for their flights. Though other nationalities look on with curiosity, it takes only one trip to New York’s LaGuardia or Newark Liberty to figure out why this is the case.
America’s airports rarely make the top ranked lists of best places to fly from or to have a connection through. In fact, America’s busiest airports are often cited as ones to avoid because they are unable to handle the heavy domestic and international traffic that passes through them every day. The FAA suggests that the cost of both delays and congestions at America’s airports reached $22 billion in 2012 alone. If aviation is not granted more money soon, that number could grow to $34 billion 2020 and $63 billion in 2040.
There are 3,330 public airports currently in use the United States: 29 of these are high-traffic airports, 36 of these are medium size airports, 74 are small hub airports and 239 of the airports are not hubs at all.
That means that a small number of airports carry 728 million passengers on flights every year. This does not include cargo, which usually amounts to $562 billion worth annually.
As air traffic becomes more common place and more people begin to commute to work, it is estimated that the current airport infrastructure will begin to transport one billion passengers each year.
From huge check-in lines to last minute delays, the aviation system is simply not getting the funding system it needs to operate so many flights.
This does not even touch on the facilities available in these airports. Some of the countries busiest airports are dismal affairs that can make a long layover feel even longer. Compared to Asian airports like those in Singapore or Dubai, Chicago O’Hare feels little bit more like purgatory than a gateway to the world.
The reason that America’s airports offer little more than a $7 Starbucks is because there is no focus on how important it is to get from one place to another. This is one thing that the Chinese are currently doing well.
Like many other infrastructure costs, the longer the project is put to the side, the more it will cost.
Public Transport Goes Unused
Until very recently, buses and trains in America’s cities ran empty, save for those who relied solely on the mass transport systems. Although 2013 saw the highest annual ridership nationally, this level is still low. The total number of trips on commuting services throughout the country reached only 2.7 billion rides.
The increase in public transport has been happening in cities that are better known for attempts at going green and creating sustainable transport including Minneapolis, MN and Seattle, WA. Both cities also have spectacularly high numbers of cyclists and bicycle friendly infrastructure, as well.
But not long ago, the Minneapolis public transportation system was a ghostly sight. Buses with no occupants but the driver would cruise through the streets of Minneapolis. Going from one side of the city to another was liable to take hours. The tram and light rail system was a local joke and a huge expense for residents.
Public infrastructure transit ranked poorly on the Infrastructure Report Card. But its grade did not come from high prices, strange timetables or lack of facilities. The problem with America’s transport system is that it does not get 45% of American households where they need to go. That 45% has no access to any type of public transportation and has to rely by default on personal cars.
Bigger and better public transportation has tangible benefits. Cities that have invested more significantly in creating reliable and comprehensive public transportation services have also seen a significant correlation in the uptick of employment.
Bridges Are Collapsing
The fact that journalists can make a list of the worst bridge collapses in America suggests that more attention must be paid to the nation’s bridges. Actually, it suggests that this attention should have been paid years ago.
Although bridge collapses are existentially terrifying, they are actually one of the highest rated parts of America’s infrastructure. However, replacement committees must pay attention to the sheer number of bridges that engineers say are structurally deficient as well as the ones that are functionally obsolete.
The number of bridges in these categories is 75,000. There are so many aging bridges that examining them has resulted in placing them a long waiting list when it comes time to replace them.
Before the I-35W bridge collapsed on a busy afternoon in Minneapolis in 2007, it had been placed on a list for replacement. Unfortunately, replacement was not scheduled until 2020.
It should also be pointed out that there is a difference between deeming a bridge functionally obsolete or structurally deficient. When a bridge is structurally deficient means that a bridge is damaged or showing signs of structural abuse. A bridge that is functionally obsolete means that it takes on more usage than it was originally designed for.
While assigning a bridge to either list is not good, it is important to prioritize the damaged bridges.
Drinking Water Is Mostly Good but Finding It is Expensive
The drinking water in most of the United States remains healthy. Citizens have little to no fear regarding drinking from the tap in most of the 50 states. Even though the pipes that most Americans use daily are often around a century old, the cases of contaminated drinking water are few and far between.
However, the facilities that Americans use to get their drinking water are aging. With old age comes breakages and replacements and both of these end up costing money for governments, utilities companies and citizens. This is because around 240,000 water main breaks occur every year. The cost to replace everything in the next few decades is currently estimated to reach around $1 trillion.
The cost of failures in water mains is not just large for those who want to remain hydrated. When pipes break, emergency situations become a big issue. Fire departments and ambulances trying to respond to calls in areas with old infrastructure can see their efforts hindered.
But the real problem with the aging pipe system in America is that no one knows what kind of condition most of the pipes are in. Because so many are buried underground or are hidden elsewhere, it is difficult to easily determine their condition. Assessment costs huge amounts of money. However, having access to clean drinking water is one of the most important parts of having a healthy society.
According to the World Health Organization, consistent access to clean water is one of the biggest determinants of health. From hydration to disease prevention, it is essential that America does not leave the state of its pipes buried underground.
Dams Are Failing
Dams are some of the most important parts of infrastructure in any country. America alone is home to 84,000 dams across the country. But the average age of each dam is 52 years old.
52 years old is old for any infrastructure. As the dams continue to age, they turn from low-hazard projects into high-hazard projects. The number of dams that have deficiencies is growing.
As this number grows, it becomes even more important to begin to make the necessary repairs. While a high-hazard dam does not have the same shocking tone as a collapsed bridge, poorly maintained dams are very dangerous. When the Iowa Lake Dehli dam failed in 2010, it caused $120 million in damage to the area. It also swept away dozens of houses. At least 8,000 people were evacuated from the area. The damage even extended to the treatment and sewage plant; residents that were left in their homes had no sewer services.
The estimated repair for the Lake Dehli dam alone was $12 million. The actual cost of replacing the dam spillway and embankment ended up being $16 million. This dam is just one of 14,000 high risk dams in America.
The Association of State Dam Safety Officials says that at least $21 billion was need to make critical repairs to the most necessary dams.
The Current Energy System Is Obsolete in the 21st Century
The aging electricity and power grids are some of the biggest issues in America infrastructure today. Transitioning an entire country from an aging electrical system to a more reliable and sustainable form of power should become and remain a priority for both energy systems and the government. However, this transition would be an incredibly expensive one.
The result of putting off this project has been an increasing number of power outages. Power outages are more than just unfair. They are dangerous for hospitals, schools and buildings hosting large numbers of people. They take emergencies from bad to worse. They even lead to a higher number of cyber-attacks because the systems in place to protect vulnerable sites go down with the power.
Although the current energy resources are expected to meet demands for the next few years, congestion has become an issue and it will continue to grow.
However, when it comes to renewable energy, this has been taken on in a piece by piece manner. Cities, villages and individuals around the country have had to get the infrastructure they need for green energy themselves.
Improving incentives for greener energy on the part of local municipalities would help relieve the pressure on the aging infrastructure.
America’s infrastructure is not the worst in the world but it is not the best either. The main problem with the infrastructure is that governmental organizations let it get so old and fall into disrepair but put off doing anything to fix the problem.
The huge figures quoted by agencies regarding the costs of repairing all of the roads, schools, bridges, dams and pipes that need to be updated could be lower if attention was allocated to them earlier. But despite warnings from engineers and environmentalists, these projects have been pushed off into the distant future.
Infrastructure is one of the most integral parts of any nation. Whether it is a new nation or a long established one, the state of its most basic and necessary parts of infrastructure has an effect on more than just congestion and efficiency. These problems can go right to the heart of the economy.
If America wants to regain its place as one of the top ranked places in the world, it’s aging and crippled infrastructure is a good place to start.