Why America Has a C- in Infrastructure – and What We Can Do About It

 


Photo by C. Dustin | Unsplash

Photo by C. Dustin | Unsplash

To most, infrastructure is probably not an exciting topic. It may be something you have not ever even thought about. But for me, as an architect and educator, it’s something I think about daily and worry that we’re not giving it enough attention.

 

Traditionally, infrastructure includes roads, bridges, dams, water supply and waste systems, energy lines, mass transit systems, solid waste management, railroads. Infrastructure provides critical public services and is an amazing generational endowment that we have struggled to properly maintain. As our nation’s population has grown over the past century, we have constantly confronted the need for additional infrastructure capacity. Because public services provided by our infrastructure are paid by you and me through taxes, investing in new buildings and increased capacity comes at an economic and political cost. As a result, much of our infrastructure is woefully inadequate and, in many cases, is on the brink of failure.

 

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) publish its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The comprehensive report depicts the condition and performance of the country’s infrastructure. It’s like a school report card, as engineers assign a letter grade based on the physical condition and needed investments for improvement.

 

The 2021 edition of ASCE’s report card covers 18 unique categories of infrastructure ranging from water supply and removal to bridges to energy to aviation. ASCE also includes a state-by-state breakdown. Here are some of the key findings from this year’s report:

  • More than 46,000 bridges are considered “structurally deficient.” Also, 42 percent of all bridges in the U.S. are now over 50 years old.

  • Every 120 seconds a water main breaks, which means we’re losing an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water every day in the U.S. That’s enough to fill 9,000 swimming pools.

  • Due to poor stormwater and wastewater management, nearly 600,000 miles of our rivers and streams and more than 13 million acres of lakes, reservoirs, and ponds are considered “impaired.”

  • Growing wear and tear on our nation’s roads have left 43 percent of our public roadways in “poor” or “mediocre” condition. By the year 2040, we’ll be paying an estimated $19 billion more to repave roads due to rising temperatures.

ASCE gave America’s infrastructure an overall grade of C- with a 10-year investment gap of $2.59 trillion. In order to close this gap, the U.S. would need investment from all levels of government and the private sector from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of the country’s GPD by 2025.

 

As if this multi-trillion-dollar price tag to modernize our infrastructure was not stunning enough, such an investment would leave largely unaddressed the structures we spend about 90 percent of our time in: our buildings.

 

Like our bridges and highways, America’s public buildings age and deteriorate over time.  

 

As an architect, I appreciate the built environment as a massive, complex, interconnected system – not unlike the human body itself. If we’re going to have a discussion about infrastructure, how could we not include buildings?

 

Simply put: buildings are infrastructure. In fact, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which represents over 80 percent of the architects in the country (and of which I serve on the board of one of its 200 chapters), has long advocated that buildings be included in discussions about our nation’s infrastructure renewal.

 

Every year that our country defers on necessary repairs and renovations, we increase the cost burden on taxpayers. Every time we repeal building codes or allow them to expire, life and property are endangered as buildings become less secure and resilient. Unless we include buildings in our discussion about our infrastructure renewal, taxpayers will be stuck with decrepit community places, higher bills when repairs come due, and structures vulnerable to disasters and threats.

 

To illustrate the importance of buildings as infrastructure, let’s consider public schools. There are approximately 84,000 public schools with nearly 100,000 buildings in the U.S. Every school day, nearly 50 million K-12 students and 6 million adults occupy these structures. According to ASCE, if our public schools were considered a form of infrastructure these facilities would constitute the second-largest sector behind roads. Yet, there is no comprehensive national data source on K-12 public school infrastructure. The best estimates indicate a minimum funding gap of $38 billion. Considering that public schools often serve a secondary function as emergency shelters and community resource facilities during acute natural disasters, facility upgrades are critical for long-term community resilience.

 

So, what can be done to better address our buildings as a form of infrastructure?

 

First and foremost, let’s resolve to include public buildings when we discuss and fund infrastructure. Schools, courts, libraries, community centers, affordable housing, and other publicly supported structures provide critical services that better ensure economic stability and community resilience. 

 

Secondly, to address both public and private buildings, we need to uphold a minimum standard across the board. We need to maintain up-to-date building codes and fire codes. Let’s resist the one-dimensional notion that all regulation impedes economic development. Indeed, undue economic hardships brought on by unnecessary and ineffective regulation and bureaucracy will inflict economic and social instability. However, we know more about building science today than we did a generation ago and our codes reflect this. If you’ve ever renovated an old house, you have witnessed this firsthand – perhaps you dealt with shoddy electrical circuitry, asbestos-containing materials, or poor ventilation.  

 

Finally, I’ll offer that design matters. According to the National Institute of Building Science, recent studies have indicated that for every dollar spent on mitigating hazards, society saves $4 in return. Good design decisions can cover operating costs, help our buildings to better withstand chronic and acute hazards, and improve human health.

 

We’ve built infrastructure before and we will do it again. However, as we move forward let’s include our buildings in the discussion, and may our generation of Americans create an infrastructure today that is worthy of passing down to our children.


CORRECTION: July 3rd, 2021 at 11:58 p.m. – A previous version of this article stated that “Every school day, nearly 50,000 K-12 students and 6 million adults occupy these structures.” The accurate statistic is 50 million K-12 students. Smerconish.com regrets this error.


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