Why the War on Infrastructure?

in·fra·struc·ture (ˈinfrəˌstrək(t)SHər/)
  1. the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.
  • The United Arab Emirates has announced over US$300 billion in construction projects (pipelines, ports, transportation).
  • Japanese trains will soon carry passengers at speeds greater than 300 MPH.
  • China’s five-year plan calls for 82 new airports.
  • London’s comprehensive infrastructure strategy runs through 2050. The report affirms that, “Infrastructure is fundamental to every Londoner, every day, from turning on the taps in the morning, to traveling to work, to switching off the lights at night.”

infrastructureSo what is happening in the U.S., you ask? Not much. Sure there are projects. Some of them are sizable.  The current political climate, however, makes a long term, strategic infrastructure plan near impossible.  As a result the American economy suffers, innovation lags and quality of life suffers.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in urban America. Roads and bridges are crumbling, water and sewer systems are outdated and communication technology is applied in an inadequate, hopscotch pattern. The sprawling deployment of government funds over the last half century has left many cities (and villages) with outdated bones. To make matters worse, the sprawling pattern is unsustainable in the long run, too. Signs of this are everywhere. (Building a road is the easy part because nobody builds a road without funding in place. RE-building it twenty years later is an entirely different matter)

Which leads us to where we are in the U.S. today. The “built environment” (i.e. cities, traditional downtowns, inner-rings suburbs) is infrastructure deprived. The newer stuff is in need of updates. And nobody wants to pay to fix it, as evidenced by the recent (in)actions of the Michigan Legislature and the refusal of Congress to pass anything resembling a long term solution.

Without appropriate support from the Federal and state governments cities must fend for themselves. There are obvious deficiencies with the “go-it-alone” model. Skewed tax burdens and a lack of regional coordination top the list.  The end results, I fear, are less competitive cities.

One note on the elephant in the room- taxes. Infrastructure should not be a victim of ideological fights over the role of government and the size of budgets. In any society government plays a central role in providing the basics. Transportation, clean water, and public safety are base level services that American cities have offered from the start. It’s the stuff that allows for commercial activity to flourish and for people to enjoy their surroundings. State and Federal leaders who erroneously insert these essential services into the ideological war over more supplemental government functions demonstrate a failure in leadership. Whichever side of the political spectrum they find themselves is immaterial.

We need to fix things. Fast.