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The High-Stakes Dilemma of America’s Everyday Infrastructure

In the 1930s, the U.S. became adept at building world-leading infrastructure to support its growing competitive economy and social aspirations. Today, the advantage has slipped in favor of China and other players.

CRH bullet trains awaiting departure at the high-speed train station in Beijing.
CRH bullet trains awaiting departure at the high-speed train station in Beijing. The People’s Republic of China has built 25,000 miles of high-speed railroad (175-200 mph) in the last two decades. (Source: flickr/Philipp Chistyakov)
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.

President Trump promised a big infrastructure bill many times, but nothing came of his repeated declarations that he was about to launch “infrastructure week.” Now the Biden administration, in cooperation with the Democrats of Congress, is hoping to make its $3.5 trillion infrastructure investment its most important legislative accomplishment before the 2022 and 2024 elections. Two giant pieces of legislation have been working their way through Congress — one a “lean” infrastructure plan of about a trillion dollars, the other a “fat” infrastructure plan that might total more than three trillion. It is not clear what legislation will finally reach the desk of the president of the United States, but we are pretty sure to get something tangible before Christmas.

It’s important that we all remind ourselves of how important infrastructure is to our lives, in big ways and small.

Everyday Infrastructure

Bismarck Airport
Clay’s taxi took him to the Bismarck Airport, a 70,000-square-foot terminal building that stands 57 feet tall with sky painted vaulted ceilings, geothermal heating and cooling, and a state-of-the-art baggage handling system. (City of Bismark, N.D.)

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture on an island off coastal Georgia. Here’s how I got there. At dawn I took a taxi along surface streets in Bismarck, N.D., for 12 miles to the airport. The current terminal was built in 2005 with plenty of federal funds, but the original terminal was constructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1936 and 1940. I flew to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the second largest in the United States, fourth busiest in the world. There I got on a sophisticated tram system and rode what seemed like a very long distance to an entirely separate terminal, where I used the bathroom and purchased a bit of food and a copy of a news magazine before boarding my flight to Jacksonville, Fla. The food came from somewhere off site and the human waste found its way to a sewage treatment plant off site. Meanwhile, my baggage somehow found its way to the right plane over the 17,000 acres of the Dallas-Fort Worth complex.

When I landed in Jacksonville, and was reunited with my baggage, I used my cellphone to call a number for the car service that was picking me up and taking me to St. Simons Island. (Just try to envision the cellular infrastructure of America!) The driver had been waiting in a special holding lot near the airport so as to be quick to pick me up but not tie up traffic in the arrival lanes until I was ready to go. She drove north for about a hundred miles on I-95, one small leg of the vast 46,876-mile Interstate Highway System, authorized by Congress in 1956. It was inspired by the remarkable German autobahn system that General (then later President) Eisenhower observed at the heart of Europe during World War II. The federal government paid for 90 percent of the construction costs and the great national network was essentially completed in 1996.
A 1958 map of the Interstate Highway system.
A 1958 map of the Interstate Highway system. The enabling legislation, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, was signed two years earlier by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Library of Congress/American Automobile Association)
To get to the island, we crossed the magnificent and elegant Sidney Lanier Bridge (named for a Georgia poet), completed in 2003 at a cost of approximately $120 million. It is one of the most beautiful bridges in America.
The Sidney Lanier Bridge with the sun very low behind it.
The Sidney Lanier Bridge is Georgia’s tallest cable-stayed suspension bridge — 7,780 feet long and 486 feet tall. It took 95,283 cubic yards of concrete and 14,810,095 pounds of reinforcing steel to build it. (Georgia Department of Economic Development)
Then we took surface streets to my hotel, where I checked in in about three minutes, while depositing electronic money in their system for any “incidentals” I might charge to my room. My room had running water (from where?) and air conditioning (made possible by some power plant somewhere and the nation’s electrical grid). Two days later I did all of these things in reverse, arriving home on the northern Great Plains without incident, on the same day I started my return journey. On the planes I was able to text my daughter in Great Britain, check my email, and watch a movie — all at 38,500 feet.

Infrastructure Makes the World Smaller and Faster

If Lewis and Clark had ventured from St. Simons Island, where Vice President Aaron Burr holed up briefly after gunning down Alexander Hamilton in New Jersey, it would have taken them at least a year to get to the Upper Missouri River where Bismarck, the state capital, is now located.

That’s a lot of infrastructure — some of it obvious (a bridge, a terminal, a taxi), some of it seemingly invisible (the Internet, cell service, air traffic control). Tax dollars paid for most of it — local, state and federal. Somehow the system works. My little recent flurry of transactions doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the larger picture. Every day in America, up to 1.9 million people fly the friendly skies, and every one of them has a complex infrastructure story like mine. We take it for granted, of course, because it works. And yet we know that America’s infrastructure is aging and ailing. The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that we need to spend at least $4.5 trillion just to shore up the existing national infrastructure by 2025. If you add to this colossal price tag the cost of what the Democrats are calling “soft infrastructure” (i.e., daycare, family leave, student loans, access to the Internet), you start to approach truly staggering amounts of money, and that money has to come from somewhere. Apparently, we just print it now and hope for the best.

Assuming that Congress passes the lean infrastructure bill and some fraction of the fat bill, that money will pay for only some of the proposed projects. I imagine that every state will submit a list, the list will be essentially infinite, and some entity will have to make hard choices. Not all infrastructure projects are of equal importance and some — I could name a few — belong to the “bridge to nowhere” school of federal largesse. Some things just absolutely have to be done — the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River in Cincinnati, for example, built in the 1960s, has served as a photo op backdrop for several recent presidents. It was declared “functionally obsolete” by the federal government in 1998 and from time to time pieces of concrete fall off of it into the Ohio River. Engineers have designated 230,000 bridges in the United States that need serious remedial attention. Every pothole wants to be filled. Chronic traffic jams in greater Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., damage productivity, pollute the air, and cause enormous frustration. President Trump famously said our airports “suck,” and our limited system of passenger rail service is a black hole of need. The nation’s electrical grid is old and notoriously inefficient for transferring energy from one place to another.

The Struggle to Be Competitive Through Infrastructure

Where to begin?
The collapsed Interstate 35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis.
The Interstate 35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis was 1,907 feet long, had 14 spans, and by 2007 carried a daily average of 140,000 total vehicles north and south over four lanes. It was 40 years old when it collapsed catastrophically, killing 13 people and injuring 145, on Aug. 1, 2007. (Flickr/Tony Webster)
However expensive all this will be, much of it simply must be done, not only to prevent bridge collapses (like the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis in 2007), but to keep America competitive in the world’s economy. The People’s Republic of China has built 25,000 miles of high-speed railroad (175-200 mph) in the last two decades. America’s fastest rail line, the Amtrak Acela Express, has a maximum speed of 150 miles per hour, but it averages around 66 mph. Infrastructure legislation in America has historically been very popular, and largely nonpartisan, in part because every Senator or Congressman gets to cut ribbons for the new tunnel or bypass. As with so much else in America now, however, even infrastructure bills generate partisan viciousness and distrust.

It is essential for us all to remember that infrastructure spending is an investment that pays palpable, measurable dividends. The Interstate Highway System not only helped make possible the colossal economic growth of the 1960s and ’70s, but it transformed American life in ways that are abundantly clear if incalculable. At $130 billion, the Interstate Highway System was a bargain that has paid for itself again and again and again. China’s high-speed rail system makes it possible to transfer material, workers and soldiers across vast distances in record time. Remember when China responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by building a 1,000-bed hospital in less than a week? The WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helped stabilize America during the 1930s, meanwhile giving hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans a modicum of dignity and honest work.

The Good News from the Roman Road

The little city-state of Rome morphed into a world empire thanks to its public investment in roads (50,000 miles), aqueducts (water delivery), and a highly trained and efficiently provisioned military system. The empire’s service providers were able to deliver fresh eggs and good wine, plus gladiatorial sports, to far-flung military outposts, some as distant as today’s Scotland. The hydroelectric power generated by great dams on the Columbia River helped the United States win World War II. Even in an imperfect presidential administration, America’s public health infrastructure managed to produce and begin to distribute efficient COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year.

In most cases infrastructure is not glamorous, though the Golden Gate, Sidney Lanier, and Verrazzano-Narrows bridges, among others, rise to the level of public art. The Interstates are generally drab, though extremely efficient, but certain stretches, like I-70 along the Colorado River between Vail and Grand Junction, Colo., or the Yellowstone River Valley along I-94 in Montana, are exceptionally well engineered, even at times elegant.

Abraham Lincoln believed that the transcontinental railroads would solve important American problems — among them, getting average Americans and new immigrants to their homesteads in the West — and they did. Theodore Roosevelt realized that the United States needed an isthmian canal (through Panama) to make it possible for the U.S. Navy to protect what had become a two-ocean continental republic — and it did. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have invested tens of billions into a global satellite communications system that will make daily life, including economic life, more efficient for everyone. Christianity under Paul’s evangelism spread through the known world on Roman roads.

Meanwhile, in America’s Rome-themed national Capitol, Congress fiddles while California burns.

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, Listening to America. Clay’s new book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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