rural highway

Rural Communities Fall Through the Cracks of Bad Infrastructure

Nov 22, 2021 | Economics, Transportation


While taking a road trip during the summer, it is hard not to notice highways riddled with potholes and detour signs. Despite the increasing obviousness of the issue over the years, the U.S. only passed a large-scale infrastructure plan in 2021. Presently, the U.S. ranks number 13 globally for infrastructure but only spends 0.52% of its GDP on infrastructure. The topic of infrastructure has been divisive, even with concerns about the safety and inefficiency of the infrastructure system. The political right argues that infrastructure spending adds to the deficit, that our current system is doing fine as-is and does not need the major overhaul favored by the political left. The political left argues that the lack of investment in our infrastructure costs the country billions of dollars and points to safety as a driving factor for investment.

Ranking 13 out of 141 countries results from continually spending such a small portion of our GDP on improvements. The U.S. spent 1.36% to 2% of GDP on infrastructure from the 1930s to 1980s. During that time, the federal government funded the Public Works Administration and expanded the national interstate highway system. Those were the last decades with major infrastructure spending. Today, U.S. infrastructure is characterized by deterioration and inefficiency. Spending only 0.52% of GDP has put the U.S. behind other economically equivalent countries and squandered its definitive investments from the 1930s to 1980s. 

Traditionally, infrastructure has been defined by the buildings, roads, and bridges that hold the country together. However, in the 21st century, infrastructure includes broadband, cables and wiring, and public transit. While many of our economic competitors and allies have expanded their definition of infrastructure long ago, the U.S. is only now directing funds for improvement. 

Australia has committed $110 billion over 10 years to expand its transit, energy, waste management, and social infrastructure with a sustainable, individual community outcome focus. Australia’s recent commitment is not a singular investment but builds on prior billion-dollar infrastructure plans that have been successfully implemented. Similarly, Canada’s multi-year infrastructure plan of $180 billion over 12 years includes equitable expansions in transit, clean energy, and social infrastructure, with a special focus on rural communities. Canada is also expanding on prior, consistent infrastructure investments and existing programs. America’s lack of continuous infrastructure investment will cost the country $3.9 trillion and 2.5 million jobs by 2025 if the bipartisan infrastructure bill does not remedy the widespread issues.

Infrastructure is not limited to physical durability but also includes sustainability — the quickly evolving climate crisis is apparent by the increase in fires, floods, and hurricanes. U.S. investment must incorporate climate science and anticipate the crisis’ effect on communities with the greatest need: rural America. 

In 2020 and 2021, there were numerous record-breaking disasters. The Midwest experienced a derecho and dramatic flooding, the West Coast was on fire for almost two months, and Hurricanes Ida and Laura battered the southern and eastern coasts. The rural towns affected by these natural disasters faced devastating repercussions as a result of poor infrastructure.

In the case of the August 2020 derecho, rural eastern Iowan communities went weeks without electricity, internet, gasoline, and groceries, on top of losing their homes amid a pandemic. In contrast, the capital city, Des Moines, and its suburbs fared better with underground wiring and newer infrastructure. The derecho caused $11 billion in damage across the Midwest. Property damage from the wildfires in California, while scattered across the state, was often isolated to rural areas. In Oregon, half of the homes burned by the fires were in rural communities. In rural Gloster, Miss., three months later, the repairs from Hurricane Ida and Tropical Storm Claudette have yet to begin.

These record-breaking events will become the norm over the next decade. In 2020, climate disasters cost the U.S. over $100 billion. Rather than fixing our infrastructure after a disaster has occurred, the U.S. ought to invest more in sustainable features that can withstand the changing climate. Attempts at sustainable infrastructure have been made, but primarily in urban areas. Cities like Los Angeles have infrastructure built to anticipate fires, but the rural communities outside the city do not. 

Currently, rural roads make up 72% of road miles across the country. TRIP, a research nonprofit, finds rural roads so poorly maintained that “traffic fatalities on the nation’s rural, non-Interstate roads occur at a rate more than double than on all other roads. A disproportionate share of fatalities takes place on rural roads compared to the amount of traffic they carry.” Fatalities result from rural roads not being maintained as often as other roads and inconsistencies in how they are built. 

An often overlooked aspect of rural infrastructure is broadband access. Access to the internet ensures access to telehealth, education, goods and services, and government resources. The FCC found that 14.5 million Americans lack access to fixed broadband services. Rural communities that are majority non-white are more likely to lack access to the internet than majority-white rural communities. Historic racially targeted zoning and private-sector investment practices, as a result of residential segregation, have greatly contributed to this rural digital divide. 

Small towns and local businesses are a fixture of rural life. Small towns act as intermediaries for agricultural products domestically and internationally, as well as hubs for farm and non-farm work. However, faced with the difficulties of connecting to urban areas, small towns are disappearing. Food systems and local economies suffer when this occurs, which is a direct result of diminishing infrastructure. 

The pandemic has further exacerbated the issues with our infrastructure, with rural communities unable to access necessary resources. Students were unable to attend school virtually, sick people found it even more difficult to access healthcare, and now the nation faces a supply chain shortage. The issues the pandemic has brought to light remain unresolved and can no longer be ignored. 

Infrastructure was a foundational piece of President Biden’s campaign and critical to his Build Back Better plan. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which Biden signed on November 15, allocates funding for roads, bridges, broadband, and repairing the damage of past racially targeted infrastructure projects. This infrastructure package is an excellent start but lacks targeted assistance for rural areas. That amount of money will only go so far in rural states like Montana, Iowa, and Mississippi when they compete with larger projects in more urban cities and states. Any effect on rural infrastructure will be residual at best rather than a direct solution. Elected officials need to push for more federal infrastructure funding to bring the U.S. on par with the rest of the world and ensure rural communities have equitable opportunities for growth that only the proper infrastructure can provide.

Featured Image by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash.