Editor’s Note: Kate Ascher is a principal at BuroHappold Engineering, an international engineering consultancy. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
If 2017 is remembered as the year of major tax reform, let 2018 be remembered as the year that the nation’s infrastructure was finally recognized as a priority for federal investment.
For several weeks, there has been talk that infrastructure could form a cornerstone of the President’s new agenda. So, what infrastructure priorities would be top of my list? In no special order, I’d spend our money on the following:
1. Interstate and long-distance rail: Funding for Amtrak, our national rail carrier, has long been a battleground between the political parties. Supporting Amtrak’s nationwide operations is not a political sin, but rather a necessity to ensure continued service between cities or towns with insufficient traffic to pay their own way.
Many countries, such as France and Germany, provide subsidies in one form or another to their domestic rail carriers for this reason. In fact, of the G7 countries, the US ranks second to last in rail spending as a portion of GDP – consistently underfunding Amtrak, impacting both profitable and unprofitable routes, and ensuring that a high-speed rail future remains generations away.
2. Bridges and roads: The federal formula for funding roadways, including bridges, is complex – and few outside of the transport world understand it. Suffice it to say that the lion’s share of the cost of our interstate highway system – of which major bridges are often a part – has historically been paid for by federal, rather than state, dollars thanks to a burst of federal spending during and following the Eisenhower administration.
But maintenance of that roadway infrastructure has long fallen to the states, and despite periodic bridge collapses and chronic congestion on key interstate highways, state and local politicians have largely used state fuel taxes as a political football, rather than as an engine to meet the needs of our nation’s roads and bridges. Alarmingly, as of 2016, over 9% of the nation’s bridges were rated structurally deficient by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
3. Urban transit: We know that the percentage of the American population that lives in cities continues to grow, and that mobility is critical to ensuring the future health of our urban economies. Yet the federal government’s support for urban transit is broadly limited to competitively selected capital projects, with little or no support for the operating costs of local transit agencies.
Thanks to falling revenues resulting from competition from car-hailing services and rising expenses associated with capital projects needed to address rising sea levels, the finances of many transit operators are in a downward spiral – and with it their ability to deliver the services we need. New York’s subway system is perhaps the largest, but not the only, network to make front pages in 2017 for its persistent failure to meet its riders’ needs.
4. Airports: Anyone who regularly travels by air is familiar with the disparity that exists between our nation’s best and worst airports. The latter are plagued by congested frontages, long queues for security and extended waits on the tarmac due to limited air space. Compare New York’s LaGuardia, with an on-time performance of 72%, with Tokyo Haneda’s 92.5% on-time performance.
Accommodating forecast growth in air travel will require outsize investments – in remaking our older airports in more modern air traffic control systems and in new forms of airport security like the facial recognition-enabled entry gates now in use in the Middle East. Until we recognize that local regions cannot alone bear the costs of these improvements, air travel in the United States will remain the product of an uneven and increasingly unreliable patchwork of airports.
5. Ports and port cities: As our appetite for foreign goods has grown, the ships delivering these good to our shores have too – some of them doubling in capacity over the course of the last generation. Yet our willingness as a nation to invest in the changes necessary to handle these behemoths – deeper harbors, higher bridges, better intermodal connections and more efficient security systems – has not.
Equally important are the challenges that our coastal and river port cities are facing from rising sea levels, and the investments required to make them more resilient. Places like New Orleans, Norfolk and Houston need to be protected the way London is by the Thames Barrier or Rotterdam is by its Maeslantkering sea gate: the cost of not doing so, as we have seen over the last decade, is enormous.
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To many, if not most, nations of the world, national government funding of infrastructure is a no-brainer and represents the lion’s share of investment in these systems. One has only to travel to the Netherlands to understand protection from floods, or to France to understand high-speed rail, or to almost any major city in Asia to understand how a modern airport needs to function.
Once upon a time, our nation built the interstate highway system – and it has paid dividends ever since. Today, however, we rely almost exclusively on the vagaries of state funding, resulting in a prolonged period of declining service across far too many forms of infrastructure. When will we realize that the costs – in reliability, productivity and safety – of not investing in these critical areas far outweigh the costs to the nation of doing so, even belatedly?