Without Pressure From the Electorate, Better Infrastructure Will Just Be Talk
Every American president since Ronald Reagan has promised to rebuild our country’s decaying infrastructure, be it transportation, power or water. Each has failed. If President Trump wants his plan to succeed where others have not, he will need to lead in a way that none of the others did. As will the rest of the country.
Politicians are merely reflections of the prevailing sentiment. They act on pressure. And until now the “pressure” to fix America’s infrastructure has been so diffused, that “doing nothing” has seemed like the right thing to do. So the key to progress is changing the amount of pressure. Until politicians believe that the only way to remain in office is to deliver infrastructure improvements, not much will change — until a catastrophic failure occurs.
In 1988, at the direction of President Reagan, the National Council on Public Works Improvement studied the nation’s infrastructure. While the council’s report did not provide an overall grade, it issued a “B” in aviation and water, a “C” in transportation and waste, and a “D” in hazardous waste.
Today, the nation has a solid “D” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Why? Because we have done nothing. Despite politicians, ordinary citizens, and bureaucracies declaring that this isn’t acceptable, year after year, they and the rest of the country choose not to improve infrastructure.
That we haven't made progress means there is something else we value more. For some it is protecting current tax rates and user fees on water, wastewater and the like. Others prefer spending money on government programs that give more immediate political payoffs. Who could be against caring for the poor or elderly, for healthcare, education, or defense?
Our resistance to changing the status quo isn’t because infrastructure costs outweigh the benefits. ASCE finds that America’s poor infrastructure costs each person $3400 per year on average in disposable income. These costs show up in things like travel delays, falling business productivity, and lost jobs. So, what do we need to spend to reach a “B” grade? According to ASCE, we could close the investment gap in eight years by spending $1100 per family. If President Trump wants to close gap, as he has said, he needs to convince the country to spend $1500 per family per year if he wants to succeed by the end of a second Trump presidential term.
The $1500 per family expenditure appears to be well worth the $3400 per person cost. If these investments had been made during the Obama Administration, the annual growth rate in per capita disposable income during his time in office would have been over 2% instead of the 0.98% we actually experienced.
So what will it take to get meaningful change? The most powerful but least appealing option is catastrophic failure. There is no more sure method to clear a movie theatre than to light it on fire. People will leave without question, but the theatre will be destroyed. Waiting for another bridge to collapse, or for water to become unavailable, as it is beginning to happen in South Africa, is a horrendous way to get people to agree that something has to be done.
It does not appear that America’s current political system has the will or capacity to get this done. Our political leaders haven’t made progress in 40 years, and remaining “electable” has become so complicated that it is unlikely politicians will have the stomach for this work. Our best hope is, for those in positions to influence public opinion, to help the population connect the benefits of infrastructure improvement with the costs, to ensure that individual citizens understand that there are personal benefits rather than tradeoffs between roads and healthcare.
The ASCE has done its part by issuing the report card. President Trump’s part now is to lead us with purpose and demonstrate courage in the face of apathy or obstruction, and most of all explain the benefits of improved infrastructure to the American public. It is also up to the American people to become part of the solution and mandate that this complex, systemic problem be solved regardless of inconveniences and obstacles.