Girl Gone Planning: Infrastructure

Updated: May 26, 2020

Of all the topics inside and out of my professional life one that comes up directly or indirectly more than almost any other is infrastructure. It makes sense when I think about it; as someone who makes a living planning the built environment, I am almost always thinking about the literal nuts and bolts of what we have built.

Infrastructure includes almost anything that you see in your daily routine: highways and roads, bridges, railroads, trails, signage, etc, and things you don't see or even think about like the pipes carrying your water to the people communicating with your plane pilot to make sure that you take-off and land without hiccup.

From the 1930s, and arguably earlier, through the 1960s, the United States spent trillions of dollars on building one of the most complicated and vast systems ever attempted by humanity. American cities like Albany starting building sewage networks in the late nineteenth-century in order to prevent cholera and other diseases that had plagued urban dwellers for centuries. The US under the New Deal spent a decade building many of the bridges we still drive over today, dams like Hoover, and the Tennessee Valley Authority still provide carbon-free electricity to a warming world. The second World War saw the US become an industrial powerhouse as its factories avoided being bombed like our European counterparts. This meant that when 'our boys' came home and reclaimed the workforce from their wives, we had the capacity to quickly start making all the consumer products that supplied the 1950s economic boom (not to mention the Baby Boom). During that time and into the 60s, the Eisenhower Administration ushered in the Interstate Highway System and built a 48,000 plus mile network of highways so that all the people moving to the suburbs could drive from their downtown offices out to their suburban houses, complete with some grass and their 2.5 kids (glad I wasn't alive then because I'd having trouble choosing which half I'd want after my second).

All this was great when it was brand spanking new and was the envy of the world. But let's admit it, our country, and the systems that run it, is falling apart. How many times have you been delayed in your commute, either in a car stuck at a construction site, or in a train stopped because of track work ahead, or on an airport tarmac waiting for a gate to open up at an over-capacity airport?

Infrastructure isn't sexy, and it doesn't attract the amount of attention that it should from us or our politicians. When was the last time you saw the mayor/supervisor of your community holding a ribbon-cutting for a new water-main? Probably never, because there is such a backlog of maintenance to keep your water flowing through the pipes that our local governments are struggling to maintain what it has, let alone replace it. So what ends up happening is that a water main, or a bridge, or a section of road, gets so bad that it bursts, has to be closed, or sadly collapses. These officials, many of whom truly want to serve and make their communities better, wind up having to hold emergency press conferences to discuss the steps they are taking to mitigate the damage. These emergency repairs are more expensive because unplanned repairs are done outside of a competitive bidding process and thus a city or town will take whoever will respond. Imagine your toilet breaks and you have to hire a plumber, are you going to take the time to call and get three quotes if you have sewage coming out of your shower drain?

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that we'd have to spend an ADDITIONAL $2 trillion OVER what we already plan to spend nation-wide for the next ten years to bring our roads, trains, water and sewer systems, airports, and other systems up to a state of good repair. Adding $2 trillion over a decade to Federal, state, and local governments' budgets would raise taxes a considerable amount and in today's fractured climate, I don't see it happening.

Most governments and agencies in the country work their hardest to keep the water flowing and the roads from collapsing, but we now live in a country that overbuilt and now doesn't want to spend the money to fix what we have. You may say "well, we should cut spending elsewhere" and I say fine, you tell me where to cut. The Federal government spent 70% of 2015 funds on mandatory spending and interest and the other 30% on discretionary spending (mandatory spending includes Social Security, Medicare, Veterans Affairs, etc). Of the $1.2 trillion spent on discretionary, 53% was on the military and the rest was on EVERYTHING ELSE. To get through the backlog and not raise taxes, we'd have to move spending from those programs for ten years. Imagine what our society would look like if we didn't spend any money on veterans' benefits, education, AND science grants for ten years?

This isn't going to be an easy fix, and to be honest, it isn't going to be a quick one either, but eventually we will have to spend more money on our ailing infrastructure through either tax increases or cuts elsewhere, or a combination of both.