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Our Infrastructure Problem Is Mostly Just Old Age

Unlike China, American roads and transport systems have been around for too many decades. We need to fix them, not dream of gleaming new ones.

Damaged road on an old bridge.
(Shutterstock)
The bipartisan infrastructure bill approved by the Senate has left a lot of people on both sides of the aisle unhappy. Many Republicans would have preferred to deny Biden any sort of political victory (in the way that Democrats refused to deal with Donald Trump), or say the spending is wasteful. Progressives are angry about the amount of money going to highways and the lack of money for their priorities, especially climate change and public transportation.

Our endless debates over infrastructure result in part from our place toward the end of the maturity curve for development. Lots of Americans have China envy. We see their gleaming cities, their expansive new subway systems, their ultra-smooth high-speed rail, and wonder why we can’t have that.

What people forget is that during our rising era of industrialization and urbanization, we did have that. We were the China of that age. We built massive electricity infrastructure, water and sewage works, trains and subways. Then we added a world-class freeway system and airport network.

China’s infrastructure building spree is part of its rapid urbanization and industrialization. Because that has happened recently, Chinese infrastructure is state of today’s art. We, by contrast, have an infrastructure system largely built for an era that is now getting old. Many of our water and sewer lines haven’t been upgraded since they were installed 75 or more years ago.

Our challenges are more complex because they involve rebuilding, not building. It’s the same as suburban greenfield development versus urban redevelopment. The former is simply easier. Building new infrastructure — a new bridge or a new subway line — is also much sexier politically than replacing the deck on an existing bridge or updating obsolete rail signals. Decades down the road, when the Chinese find themselves sitting on a pile of aging, obsolete infrastructure, they will face many of the same challenges we do.

We need to evaluate American infrastructure needs within the context of rebuilding and upgrading, not creating a large number of shiny new objects. Even today, leaders often prefer to spend on the new rather than the old, so we do need a greater bias in favor of fixing it first.

We also struggle with infrastructure because there is no longer a shared political vision of what we should even build. Those on the left in particular think that climate change trumps all — some of them think it even trumps democracy — and that there is no alternative but to radically reshape life in America. On the right, as is typical for its largely negative agenda, many oppose climate adaptation merely because the left supports it.

These infrastructure challenges are real. Even so, too much of the debate is focused on top-level issues like how much to spend on rail versus road. There are other items that would pay great dividends and should transcend politics. For example, the cost of infrastructure construction has gone up significantly. It’s now well established that America, especially New York, has the highest rail construction costs in the world. Reducing that closer to the median for the developed world would be pure gain. We will never have a top-quality rail system in America without getting costs under control. Highway construction is less extreme, but even here, costs have gone up.

There are big challenges in our electric infrastructure. The way that we manage our grid has failed us multiple times, ranging from the Enron era price manipulation in California to a Texas system that imposes confusing choices on consumers and has left some exposed to raw wholesale price swings. Improperly maintained lines have sparked wildfires, and rolling blackouts seem to happen on a regular basis.

In an effort to support new intermittent clean energy sources like wind and solar, and simply to employ “smart” technology, we have fragilized our electric grid. It seems only a matter of time until hackers disable parts of our electricity system the way they’ve already done in pipelines. We need to be able to support more clean energy generation, but there needs to be a much greater focus on grid reliability, security, and customer protection.

These are but two examples of areas where change is needed. In short, beyond how much to spend on infrastructure and what to spend it on, there’s a great need for change in how we build and operate our infrastructure. This is an area that needs much more focus, and one where hopefully there are more opportunities to transcend partisan divides.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at aaron@aaronrenn.com or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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