In the public policy realm, many issues are out of reach for a lot of Americans because they can seem abstract by either their scale, such as $16 trillion in national debt, or baffling in their complexity.
Infrastructure, however, is an easy one to understand. After all, local politicians usually love to take credit for fixing potholes. But it is another story inside the Beltway.
That the American Society of Civil Engineers should give the U.S. a “D+” grade in its 2013 survey will come as no surprise to those who regularly travel ravaged roadways, suffer through recurring flight delays or find themselves without power during mild spring storms.
The ASCE’s report, released this week, at least shows some overall improvement from the “D” grade given four years ago.
“While the modest progress is encouraging, it is clear that we have a significant backlog of overdue maintenance across our infrastructure systems, a pressing need for modernization, and an immense opportunity to create reliable, long-term funding sources to avoid wiping out our recent gains,” the report said. Aviation received a “D” grade, as did drinking water. So did transit, schools and roads.
Reliable and modern infrastructure is crucial to American Competitiveness. The U.S. needs a resilient foundation that the economy, as well as the larger American political and social system, can rest upon. That is not the case right now. Electrical grids and critical ground and air transportation systems are overtaxed with regular use, and extreme weather only worsens this burden. Schools are not in the sort of condition conducive to educating world-class students.
This is not lost on business leaders who control where their companies invest. The World Economic Forum’s most recent competitiveness ranking puts the U.S. 20th out of 144 nations for its overall infrastructure score.
Fixing these problems will not come cheap. By 2020, the U.S. needs to spend $1.6 trillion more than the $2 trillion currently expected, ASCE believes, to see across-the-board improvements.
To address that shortfall, one worthy option is to establish a national infrastructure bank that could blend public and private funds. An infrastructure bank would also tackle the problem of politicized priorities by steering funding around traditional appropriators in Congress and turning allocation over to a bipartisan board. “Fix-it first” projects, such as those noted by President Barack Obama during his State of the Union speech, are a good start as they focus resources on critical fixes rather than home-district boondoggles drummed up by Congress.
The benefits of a truly 21st Century infrastructure are easy to imagine.
Supplying reliable and cheaper power, businesses saving time and money, as well as sound environments for the nation’s schools, are among them. To both earn these benefits and receive higher marks from ASCE, Washington must move not slip back into the partisan quicksand that thwarts improvements to American Competitiveness.
If not, then fixing potholes will be the least of Washington’s problems in the coming years.
Check out ASP’s White Paper on American Competitiveness that discusses these issues further:
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