Seeing the Unseen: America's Crumbling Infrastructure

Matt Crafton, P.E., LEED AP | President & CEO | Crafton Tull

Clare Dunn | Communications and Media | Crafton Tull 

It is no secret the country’s infrastructure is in need of updates, maintenance, innovation, and repair. In the most recent report grading infrastructure performance, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rated the current state of our infrastructure a D+. In the same report, ASCE estimated the need at $3.6 trillion in investments by the year 2020 in order to tackle the backlog of maintenance and improvement projects in the U.S.

Although this is a daunting figure, it is achievable. Much of the responsibility lies with elected officials working together to budget and allocate funds thoughtfully and efficiently. However, the issues facing our infrastructure are too important to be made only political. There are many factors necessary to make sure these crucial improvements are undertaken. Both private citizens and lawmakers must first consider the historical significance of our infrastructure system; we must then emphasize the role infrastructure plays in society as a whole; finally, we must reach out to our leaders and demand that they depoliticize an issue that is imperative to all Americans.

1.A Marvel of Human Achievement

America is known for action and innovation. From President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA), which, produced more than 650,000 miles of roads  and 75,000 bridges, to the Federal-Aid Highway Act  signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, American infrastructure is inarguably one of the pinnacles of human achievement. Many of the programs introduced by these measures were politically polarizing, to say the least. However, as time passed, the gap closed. Those from both sides of the aisle recognized the cultural and economic significance. In fact, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his autobiography Ronald Reagan: An American Life, “The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR’s alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other projects…it gave men and women a chance to make some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it.” Progress was progress – untouched by politics.

The need for thoughtful and sustainable design was integral when the first highways, waterways, airports and railways began going up across the country. Those credited with designing and building our modern infrastructure system had the engineering know how, construction capabilities, funding and work ethic needed to get the job done.

2.Hiding in Plain Sight

One of the more curious aspects of infrastructure is how rarely people think about it. When functioning properly, it often goes unnoticed, which is remarkable considering how vital it is to society. Infrastructure is to a society what the circulatory system is to a human body, a series of interwoven vessels that move not just products, but people, services, and ideas. We simply cannot function effectively and efficiently if our foundation is falling apart. While the A/E/C industry is at the helm regarding physical repairs and improvements, all citizens can help. Educating the public on specific goals and obstacles helps bring infrastructure discussion to the forefront.

3.The Bureaucracy Behind It

On July 28th, the Senate voted 62-32 in favor of limiting debate on the bipartisan substitute amendment. They are evaluating options for completing the bill in anticipation of a final vote on Thursday July 30th.

In an effort to buy more time while allowing themselves to take their five-week summer break, the House is expected to hold a quick vote on Wednesday the 29th to extend the Trust Fund until October. If the Senate is forced to accept the extension, $8 billion will be transferred to the Highway Trust Fund to keep it solvent at least until Congress reconvenes. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster stated:  "The Senate's work on their transportation bill is a positive step, but the House also needs to make its voice heard and put forth its own priorities for such a significant piece of legislation.  I believe this three-month extension represents the compromise that allows the House more time, and a confirmation of our commitment to produce a fiscally responsible long-term proposal."

In theory, maybe; however, many states have already canceled projects for fear the money won’t be there to pay for them.  In 2015 alone, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has already canceled bid lettings for 75 projects valued at over $335 million in planned highway improvements.  If the House doesn’t work with the Senate to craft a multi-year bill, states run the risk of not receiving reimbursements for money already put into completed projects or suspending projects that are in mid-construction.

Quality infrastructure depends equally on the bureaucracy involved in the financing and governing of the work being done. This means that, while better than nothing, these short-term extensions only further delay new contracts. In some cases major projects will be canceled altogether.

4.A Certain Responsibility

More than a half century after the previous major infrastructure investments were made, we are faced with the need to replace critical infrastructure that has outlived its useful life.  This nation certainly has the engineering and construction capabilities to meet the task. The difference between the generations before and now appears to be a lack of willingness to fund the job.

Past engineers tasked with creating the existing systems used and improved upon the available technology to get the job done. Modern engineers have the advantage of infinitely more advanced technology to maintain and improve upon existing structures. America’s groundbreaking design made our infrastructure the envy of the world. That infrastructure that allowed our economy to thrive and raise the standard of living of millions of people has deteriorated due to the lack of sufficient resources.  This lack of resources threatens not only the setback and stagnation of our economy but the safety of our traveling public.  Quite literally, the roads and bridges are crumbling beneath our feet and tires. 

This generation must face the difficult choices before it.  The hard reality is that we are literally hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars behind in the necessary investments to keep our roads, bridges, airports and water utilities in adequate condition.  These investments in our critical infrastructure are necessary not just for this current generation but for the generations that will inherit the country we leave to them.  Do we really want to be the first generation that leaves our country’s infrastructure to our children and grandchildren in worse condition than we were given?

Congress has repeatedly failed in its obligation to meet the needs of our country’s infrastructure funding.  Passing short-term funding extensions does NOT solve the problem.  It is time for this Congress to make the hard choices and pass a long-term transportation bill so the engineers and contractors can get to the job of rebuilding this nation.

Contact your U.S. senators and congressmen and urge them to vote for long-term protection of the Highway Trust Fund. The sooner a multi-year bill is passed, the sooner the U.S. Department of Transportation can begin rebuilding America’s backbone.

For more information on how to contact your Senators and members of Congress, visit the following:

Take Action : Updates from the ASCE and links to contact lawmakers

#FixTheTrustFund : News items, petitions, social media contacts for lawmakers

Letter to Congress from ASCE President supporting H.R. 2353

Click here to read all related Bills and Resolutions