This is Part 1 of a two-part series assessing America’s infrastructural integrity and the outlying factors impeding policy change.

Although the Beltway has been abuzz about sequestration and the potential deep cuts to various federal programs on the horizon (among other topics of interest), one trend has remained consistently on the up and up for almost half a century: the steady decline of America’s transportation infrastructure.

A Crumbling System

Indeed, since President Dwight Eisenhower thought up the Interstate Highway system in the mid-1950s, America has lacked a promising or comprehensive vision to keep the country interconnected and competitive on the global stage. Despite the many iconic landmarks and transportation systems that dot the urban landscape, many are fading into obscurity and disrepair. The statistics are all too familiar by now – the Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, published triennially by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), documents the decline.

The 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota wrought significant economic damage on the neighboring community and sent shockwaves throughout the country.

Yet, some less-known statistics have not been expressed in the public square or reflected in policy choices opted for by the government. Nearly every infrastructural network knitting the country into an interconnected whole is the direct result of a project undertaken during America’s infrastructural heyday in the middle of the 20th century: the average age of American bridges is well over 43 years (several years shy of their expected 50-year lifespan) and the rate of travel on the Interstate Highway is as slow as it was before the Interstate’s construction.

To put it differently, the Interstate has experienced a 500% increase in traffic over that span with few functional changes implemented to offset changes in demand, keeping Americans stalled in traffic for, on average, approximately 50 minutes daily. To provide some perspective, even Europe’s least mobile country, Britain, has a significantly lower average daily commute time. Combine such seemingly fanciful statistics with demographic trends that project a 40% growth in America’s population over the next 40 years and we as a country must come to accept the inevitable and all-too-recognizable reality staring us straight in the face: we are at a tipping point.

Federal Fumbling

Our public works may serve as testaments to the ingenuity of humankind, but you would not be able to tell if you looked at spending levels to which the federal government has committed—the linkage to productivity and economic utility is lost on politicians, and by extension, the Americans they represent nationally. While China and India spend about 9% of GDP on infrastructure and the European Union budgets close to 5%, U.S. infrastructure spending has dropped precipitously over the past half-century to about 2.4% of GDP.

Even the 2.4% figure is not indicative of reality, though. Kerry O’Hare of the non-profit advocacy group Building America’s Future clarified, in an interview with the HPR, that spending on transportation infrastructure alone is actually 1.7% of GDP and has diminished over the years largely as a result of policy incoherence and political fumbling of the issue in Washington.

Despite the visibility of the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act signage along various American highways, for example, only about 8% of the designated $840 billion was explicitly dedicated to infrastructure renovation.

Are the American people blind to the need for transportation renovations? Yes and no. Although O’Hare made clear the existence of a lingering “public skepticism” toward the federal government because of the skyrocketing of transportation bill earmarks—from 10 in 1981 to over 6,000 in 2005—at the state and local level, citizens are opting to tax themselves to fund specific projects necessitated by neglect and decrepitude.

In an interview with the HPR, Rose Sheridan, Vice President of Communications at the American Public Transportation Association, contended that the American people are “ahead of the politicians” and understand the need to be competitive globally by starting with infrastructural upkeep in the communities. Studies by the policy research group Center for Transportation Excellence have demonstrated that 79% of all transportation-related local and state referenda passed in 2011 and that to this point in 2012, 89% have passed. Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, Americans in localities are expressing an evolutionary view of spending as an investment with tangible economic returns, according to advocates like Sheridan.

Economic Consequences

The more the United States averts direct confrontation with its problems, the worse its economic situation is likely to become, because infrastructural integrity begets economic sustainability. And the economic price is real.

A University of Minnesota study in 2008 demonstrated that the August 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge led to losses upward of $70 million for the Minneapolis-St. Paul regional community.

More routinely, private carriers have also come to feel the sting. As bridges and roadways develop reputations for congestion and obsolescence, carriers like United Parcel Service (UPS) are progressively inclined to re-route, adding time and costs along the way:

“The ‘soft’ cost of congestion, currently to UPS is $103 million annually,” UPS Director of Strategic Communications Kara Ross told the HPR. “If every UPS commercial vehicle is late an average of 5 minutes a day, it costs [UPS] $103M in added operational costs and redundancies.”

On an individual level, the cost has been brutal. Most noticeably, urban roadway congestion has experienced a threefold increase since 1980, translating into over 1.9 billion gallons in wasted fuel for the nation.

The threat and cost to us as a society are unavoidable. The question now is how do we as a nation assess blame for our descent?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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