by Samuel Murray, columnist
The United States is in great need of an overhaul of national infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2021 report card graded America’s infrastructure at a C-. That is unacceptable. Public infrastructural degradation is a failing of our government, one that disproportionately hurts lower income folks, who tend to use it the most. For far too long, we have neglected necessary infrastructure across a diverse array of services and systems, from roadways to water systems to the internet; all are vital to the daily functions of society.
First, our national roadways, once a proud accomplishment of modern engineering, are now in dire need of repair. Our national highway system was first introduced by President Franklin Roosevelt and eventually passed into law with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944. Codifying the highway system as public infrastructure was originally intended as a jobs and economic development program, stemming from New Deal ideology. However, it was President Eisenhower who oversaw the construction and completion of the national highway system. Eisenhower’s goal was consistent with President Franklin Roosevelt’s, with the intention of using the highway system both as an economic development program and for civilian use. But this once-grand achievement by New Deal coalition laborers has degraded over the decades, to a point where minor repairs are insufficient in addressing its failings.
Currently 43% of our public roadways are in poor or mediocre condition, a statistic that hasn’t changed for decades. Our roadways have also failed to address the concentrated modern workforce commute, with Americans on average spending $1,000 a year wasting time and fuel in idling vehicles stuck in traffic. Americans are not safe on the road, with 36,000 people every year dying in automobile accidents. Our roadways must be not only repaired and improved, but put to higher safety and efficiency standards so that Americans can get to work and recreational activities faster and safer.
Our water systems are also failing. ASCE found that due to failing water mains, we lose an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water daily. More than 30 million Americans live in areas where water systems violate safety rules, and 2 million Americans are without running water or basic plumbing. The lack of adequate access to water or water systems disproportionately affects marginalized communities, with Native Americans being 19 times more likely to lack indoor plumbing than predominantly white communities, a disparity greater than any other demographic. Repairs that address these inequities are needed: The EPA recently found that our water systems need $473 billion in investments over the next 20 years. And this price tag is only for repair, and doesn’t include finding adaptive technologies for more safe, efficient, and equitable water distribution systems.
Finally, the lack of nationwide access to high-speed, affordable internet is another failing that America must address, particularly after the heightened necessity for home internet revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While about 90% of Americans have access to the internet, even those with access face disparities in the accessibility of high-speed internet, otherwise known as broadband. In the early stages of the internet, low speeds were the norm, however now with video calls becoming a standard method of communication, affordable high-speed options are necessary.
Currently, 65% of U.S. counties have average internet speeds lower than the FCC definition of broadband, which is determined to be a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second (mbps) for standard use by a student and for streaming video. Accessibility varies based on where an individual lives, with over 25% of rural Americans lacking access to broadband, whereas in larger cities that drops down to 0.6%. Importantly, having the ability to access high speed internet does not mean that one is able to afford plans from service providers and avoid absurd data caps that regulate how much internet one can use in a given month. The disparities in access to broadband must be overcome by investing nationally in broadband, through an initiative similar to the one recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.
These three categories—roadways, water systems, and internet connectivity—cannot encompass the totality of the nation’s infrastructure repairs, but they give a minor glimpse at how the United States lags behind in ensuring equitable and functioning infrastructure for all. Fortunately, President Biden has acknowledged these failings and has proposed a comprehensive plan to address them.
President Biden’s infrastructure plan targets economic recovery and national improvement. Its core provisions include rebuilding transportation infrastructure such as roadways and bridges, updating our nation’s power grid, expanding green spaces in urban environments, and ensuring safe water systems and universal broadband for all. It also emphasizes the inclusion of green initiatives to improve transportation, including investments in the American production of vehicles, public transit expansions, the weatherization of buildings, the improvement of low-cost housing, and a climate justice initiative.
Biden’s plan is bold and acknowledges the scale and scope of what must be done to improve and reinvent facets of American infrastructure that have lacked substantive updates for decades. The price tag hovers around $2 trillion, which may prove to be an obstacle in Congress after the narrow passage of the recent $1.9 trillion stimulus package. However, this infrastructure bill is essential for giving state and local governments the funding they need to improve infrastructure they control. Combined, state and local governments own 90% of the infrastructure assets in the nation that are not related to national defense. State and local governments also account for 75% of infrastructure spending. Federal intervention is needed, or else the status quo of poor, underfunded infrastructure projects will prevail.
Infrastructure should be a national priority, as simple affordable or no-cost access to quality water, roadways, internet, and electricity should be bare necessities that the government guarantees. Using taxpayer dollars to improve the very things that most Americans use everyday should be a huge priority for the federal government, and with it the opportunity to leverage green and efficient infrastructure initiatives. President Biden should call on Congress to make broadband accessible for all, water systems functional and free of pollutants, and roadways safe and repaired. There are countless possibilities in improving our nation’s infrastructure, and while no single bill or plan will solve everything, passing one could be a step in the right direction.
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