We usually think about “infrastructure” as roads and bridges. But the label also covers other kinds of public works. There are many types of infrastructure that affect nearly everything we touch and everywhere we go in modern society.
Besides roads and bridges, some elements included in infrastructure are:
- Water supply facilities
- Waterways, dams, and levees
- Electricity plants
- Hazardous waste disposal plants
- Parks and recreation facilities
- Transportation structures
For most types of infrastructure projects, both large and small, backhoes and excavators are used to prepare construction site foundations. This versatile earthmoving equipment works well for many infrastructure projects, such as digging holes, landscaping, breaking asphalt, and paving roads.
America’s infrastructure system needs continual maintenance of this type. But with so much attention focused recently on the coronavirus pandemic, the state of our infrastructure has taken a back seat.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) annual report for 2021 gave the U.S. infrastructure quality an overall grade of C-minus. And that’s not the worst of it: Among 17 types of American infrastructure, 11 got a grade in the D range.
Among the ASCE report’s findings:
- Wear and tear have left 43% of public roads in poor or mediocre condition.
- About 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost every day in the United States. This is enough to fill more than 9,000 swimming pools daily.
- More than 30,000 miles of inventoried levees exist across the country. For 10,000 more miles, the condition — and even their location — isn’t known.
Substandard infrastructure costs money, jobs, and lives. Failing bridges can be deadly. For example, the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis left 13 people dead and 145 others injured. And poorly maintained and congested roads can lead to traffic fatalities.
Power grid failures in Texas during extreme cold disrupted countless lives and destroyed homes. The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, sickened thousands of residents, many of them children.
Repairs and new construction are imperative to the state of America’s infrastructure, which means devoting millions of dollars to the costs of materials and construction equipment, as well as worker salaries. But it appears help is on the way.
President Joe Biden has proposed a $2 trillion plan for infrastructure development over the next eight years. The proposal also focuses on issues like creating jobs and cutting engine emissions to combat climate change. Details can be found at whitehouse.gov.
But ASCE estimates the cost at higher than that: An additional $2.6 trillion is needed for infrastructure projects over the coming decade. The group warns that investing too little will be far more costly in the long run.
By 2039, the group says, the bill for our declining infrastructure will cost the nation’s GDP $10 trillion and more than 3 million American jobs. That’s equal to $3,300 a year for the average American household.
Surprisingly, the federal government provided just 25% of U.S. public infrastructure investment in 2017. That was down from 38% in 1977. State and local governments picked up the rest of the tab. This included nearly all of the operation and maintenance costs: $240 billion, compared to $27 billion from the federal government.
The biggest concern is transportation infrastructure, or roads and highways. ASCE reports that transport statistics show the gap between needs and total funding for surface transportation to be more than $1.2 trillion. This means America’s roads are missing 43% of what’s needed to keep them safe and functional.
Demands on transport infrastructure will grow as COVID-19 precautions ease and more people begin to travel again. Already, figures from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics show a shift. North American transborder freight was up 16% year over year in March 2021. Airline cargo was up 9% in the same period, based on preliminary data.
Even wider gaps exist in datasets for other infrastructure areas, though the overall needs are less costly. For instance, the funding for dams is just $12.5 billion, but $93.6 billion is needed. Funding also is well below half of what’s needed for:
- Parks and recreation facilities
- Inland waterways and ports
Schools, hazardous waste facilities, and air transport also fall well short of required funding levels.
How Does America Compare?
The U.S. invests less of its gross domestic product (GDP) in infrastructure development than many other countries. This hampers its overall competitiveness, according to ASCE, and the private sector is headed for major losses as a result. At current spending rates, the U.S. is projected to lose $2.24 trillion in exports over the next 20 years, ASCE estimates.
The United States’ spending as a percentage of GDP, at just 2.4%, ranked 13th globally in 2019. Among other countries, the U.S. fell behind France, Germany, Japan, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. And by 2040, U.S. numbers are expected to fall further, to 1.5%.
By comparison, below are projected levels of infrastructure spending by 2040, as a percentage of GDP, for the U.S. and several competitors:
- China: 5.1
- Indonesia: 4.1
- Australia: 3.6
- India: 3.6
- Japan: 3.2
- South Korea: 2.9
- South Africa: 2.9
- Russia: 2.8
- Brazil: 2.7
- France: 2.6
- Canada: 2.5
- Italy: 2.4
- Saudi Arabia: 2.3
- Argentina: 2.2
- United Kingdom: 1.8
- Turkey: 1.8
- Germany: 1.6
- United States: 1.5
- Mexico: 1.3
Energy infrastructure generates, transmits, and distributes power. Here is a breakdown of how different forms of energy compare in terms of the percentage of overall energy infrastructure.
- Natural gas accounts for 38.4%.
- Coal accounts for 23.5%.
- Nuclear power accounts for 19.7%.
- Renewable sources account for 17.5%.
- Petroleum accounts for 0.5%.
Spending for America’s electric grid is used to generate, transmit and distribute energy throughout the nation. More substantial spending has been allocated to the grid in recent years, as more severe weather events and aging transmission lines have combined to increase outages.
Utilities across the country are taking steps to incorporate renewable sources and respond more proactively to climate change by making the grid more resilient. This is good news because an additional $338 billion needs to be spent by 2039 to ensure a reliable grid, ASCE estimates.
Internet use has grown substantially over the first two decades of the 21st century. By 2020, 93% of Americans used internet services, up from just 52% in 2000. But a large gap exists between urban and rural areas in terms of high-speed internet access.
Urban areas largely enjoy the widespread accessibility of high-speed internet. But many rural areas are still without reliable internet access. Approximately 24 million Americans live without access to broadband internet. Of those, 80% live in rural areas.
This hampers progress for businesses in those areas, as well as for schools, which rely on the internet as part of their curriculum. Despite the 2020 shift to online schooling, ASCE estimated that one in five school-aged children lacked the high-speed internet they need to access lessons.
Some other statistics:
- Mobile revenues account for 54.2% of the telecommunication services market in North America.
- $1,553 billion was spent on global telecom services in 2020.
The U.S. transportation system consists of a variety of components, including:
- Rail systems (passenger, freight, and light rail)
- Air travel
It serves users seeking to move themselves and/or freight from one place to another for commuting, traveling, working, or transporting goods.
The transportation system is meant to serve all U.S. residents as well as visitors. In 2018, it served 327 million U.S. residents. That included those who might not have owned a vehicle, as well as 80 million foreign visitors.
The net value of U.S. transportation capital stock in 2018 was a substantial investment at $8.3 trillion. Yet this is about half of what the U.S. should be investing in its transportation infrastructure.
The Mississippi River and its tributaries, along with the Columbia, Sacramento, and San Joaquin Rivers, make up the nation’s “water highway.” This network totals 12,000 miles of navigable waterways for freight transportation.
Inland waterways move about 830 million tons of cargo each year, and one barge can move as many as 70 tractor-trailers or 16 train cars. Yet ASCE gives the condition of America’s inland waterways just a D-plus grade. The group found that delays cost up to $739 an hour for an average tow. That adds up to $44 million a year.
And help isn’t on the way quickly, although a barge-tax increase on shippers has raised $25 million. Despite the increase, there’s still a backlog of $6.8 billion worth of construction projects. Combined with continuing lock closures, this equals 5,000 hours lost between 2015 and 2019.
Nearly $17 trillion in goods (72% of the overall total) travel American highways and roads every year, according to ASCE. Yet growth in road width and miles has remained stagnant since 2010, even as the count of registered vehicles has grown.
Vehicle numbers are projected to hit 289.5 million in 2021, compared with 248.7 million in 2012 — a traffic increase of 16.4%. The increased numbers are traveling on roughly the same roadways as before, though.
The number of centerline miles of roadway (one mile in length as measured along highway centerlines) remained around 4.2 million from 2010 to 2018. Lane miles (centerline length multiplied by the number of lanes) stayed at or near 8.8 million miles.
Driving on overcrowded American roads in poor or mediocre condition costs motorists up to $135 billion a year, according to TRIP, a national transportation research nonprofit. This translates to $596 per driver for repairs, increased fuel use and tire wear, and faster vehicle depreciation.
One of the most common pieces of equipment used to create the foundations for highways or sidewalks is a single or double drum roller.
The state of the nation’s various types of bridges is also cause for concern, both in terms of age and condition.
Of 617,084 usable bridges in the U.S., 42% are more than 50 years old. Among those, 46,000 are rated “structurally deficient.” That means they’re in poor condition, though not in imminent danger of collapsing.
Interstate highway bridges accounted for 9.4% of all bridges in America — but they carried 45.5% of the nation’s motor vehicle traffic.
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) reported that the country faced a $786 billion backlog in road and bridge repairs. To improve transit conditions, relieve congestion, and improve traffic safety, the department recommended a 29% funding increase for roads and bridges to total $136 billion annually.
Transit ridership hit a peak of 9.9 billion in 2014 before declining to 9.1 billion in 2018, according to the USDOT. This was well before the COVID-19 pandemic reduced transit use, as more employees worked from home and the CDC warned that bus, train, and similar modes of travel created challenges in limiting the virus’ spread.
Among forms of public transit, buses had the highest share of transit trips in 2018 at 53%. But because bus passengers tend to take shorter trips, buses ranked lower (31%) in the number of person-miles traveled. Rail transit showed the opposite trend. It comprised 15% of transit vehicles but covered 46% of trips and 60% of person-miles.
In 2019, there were 19,600 airports in the United States. The 50 busiest American airports serve 85% of all U.S. air travelers. Aviation infrastructure is essential for the purpose of sustaining airplanes and airports.
Airport use was rising before the pandemic. The number of air passengers hit an all-time high in February 2020, before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place.
Air transportation services support 1.4 million jobs in the U.S., and tourism brings in billions in revenue each year. However, delays and the state of the airport system cost the economy more than $35 billion annually.
The numbers across these categories reflect the overall state of the nation’s infrastructure. They also reveal the magnitude of the challenge America faces in repairing, maintaining, and upgrading it. America relies heavily on construction equipment for improving the current infrastructure status. Major investment is needed to stay competitive globally — and to secure the safety and jobs of the nation’s citizens, who depend on it.