The Road Ahead Is in Need of Repair

The future of our nation's infrastructure requires an innovation intervention.

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When it comes to infrastructure, the job is never done -- and the bills keep coming. There is a common public misconception that once a road, bridge or other piece of basic infrastructure is constructed, it becomes a "permanent" part of our built environment -- ready to serve the needs of citizens forever, or at least almost forever. Perhaps that's partly because the ancient Romans built such excellent roads. Many people who tour the ruins of the old world are often surprised to find certain parts of those ancient superhighways are still definable and sometimes even still in use. 

The Interstate Highway System is a high-profile example of this popular phenomenon. Construction began in 1956 with an initial financial projection of $27 billion. By 1991, the estimated total cost rose to approximately $129 billion. The nationwide system was declared essentially complete in 1992, but the Federal Highway Administration estimates the 50 states collectively continue to spend more than $25 billion per year on reconstruction, maintenance and expansion.

The contractors who bid for the work see it too. Writing on its own site, engineering and construction firm CDM Smith argues that freeways simply aren't free - and that the underlying funding structure is broken.

The U.S. government largely paid for the system’s original construction, but owns virtually none of it today. States are generally left “holding the bag” to pay for the next 50 years of this vital system. What is worse, government expenditures today average less than 45 percent, and the Highway Trust Fund has run dry at least 3 times in the last 4 years. Recently, there has been increasing discussion about adding tolls for a new source of funding, but the biggest Congressional argument against that is, “the roads are already paid for.”

As a city planner and former mayor, it is a subject close to my heart. My city, Chattanooga, sits at the confluence of three interstate highways: I-75, I-24 and I-59. Back when engineering and construction of the Interstate Highway System was beginning in the early 1960s, Chattanooga had an aggressive mayor who could foresee the future importance of being a prominent part of this emerging class of national transportation infrastructure.

Accordingly, we enjoyed some of the earliest completed segments. The downside is that some of it is now old and seriously outdated. Not far from my home, the eastern terminus of I-24 intersects with I-75. It is a marvel of 1955 engineering and construction, but it is also now the site of frequent accidents. Trucks trying to negotiate the tight turns sometimes tip over, shutting down traffic in all directions -- sometimes for hours. Back in the 1980s, we dreamed of rebuilding this critical interchange. The cost at that time was estimated at $25 million. Since then, only basic maintenance has been done and the estimated cost of reconstruction has risen to $70 to $80 million.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) publishes a national infrastructure report card. As we prepare to embark on Cohort 3 of the City Accelerator, I recommend you read the most recent version
. The report is also available in the form of a mobile app -- a great way to research, retain and reuse this data covering the entire spectrum of the nation’s infrastructure. If you don't have the time or inclination to research the full report, at least view this brief video.

The ASCE report gives the nation's infrastructure an overall grade of D+, ranging from a high of B- for solid waste to a D- for inland waterways and levees. The comprehensive analysis projected a need for new infrastructure investment totaling $3.6 trillion by 2020.

The report concludes that 42 percent of the nation’s roads and highways are substandard, resulting in an annual indirect cost of approximately $110 billion in lost income and revenue. That is in addition to the cost of repairs and reconstruction of the actual roads. Those "out of sight, out of mind" systems that we rely on to provide safe and drinkable water were given an overall rating of D. In the video summary, George Hawkins, CEO and general manager of DC Water, says they are still using water mains that were put into service before the Civil War. And this evaluation of the national water system took place before the more recent emergency in Flint, Mich. Some estimates predict that the reevaluation of the presence of lead pipes throughout our older cities as a result of the Flint disaster might lead to new regulations requiring hundreds of millions of dollars for the removal and replacement of all lead pipes nationwide.

Then, of course, there are those relatively new infrastructure needs associated with issues such as stormwater management and the construction of a nationwide digital broadband system. Although they are recent emerging needs, they are no less important for the future viability of our nation's health and economy.

Just a few parting thoughts: It's not a matter of simply raising taxes and fees. Unquestionably, the need will continue and in some cases infrastructure emergencies will arise that cannot be ignored, postponed or minimized. Costs will continue to soar. Bills will continue to come and must be paid. But one uncomfortable fact that cannot be ignored is that all these increased costs ultimately trickle down and fall most heavily on those that can least afford it. In my former life as an elected official, I had the unenviable task of raising taxes and water quality fees to build and rebuild infrastructure -- much of it to meet federal mandates. The result was a recall attempt by our local Tea Party members on the right and accusations that I was insensitive to the plight of the poor by the Organized for Action group on the left.

The road ahead will be neither easy nor lacking in controversy. But one thing is for certain, the road ahead and all the infrastructure that we depend on every day needs significant repair and improvement, and that means financing. The $3.6 trillion needed will not magically fall out of the sky. Finding new and creative ways to finance critical infrastructure is an issue that promises to be a recurring theme in most all upcoming debates about the future -- whether locally in a city hall or nationally in the halls of Congress. Forgive the pun, but it will be difficult to find a more concrete example of a need for innovation.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.