America's infrastructure is failing: What needs fixing first?

America's infrastructure is failing: What needs fixing first?
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Tens of thousands of homes were without power last week as a weather system packing powerful winds and arctic temperatures roared across Massachusetts, downing power lines. It was nowhere near the catastrophic situation that Texans endured in which people lost heat, electricity and clean water for weeks last month. And don’t forget about the recent floods in Kentucky. And then there was California, where in January a 150-foot chunk of the famed Pacific Highway fell into the ocean following intense rainstorms creating a debris flow that overwhelmed water drains for more than 100 miles south of San Francisco.

The number of weather disasters with losses over a billion dollars is increasing, according to NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information. And the group Climate Central says that since 2000 there's been a 67 percent increase in major power outages from weather and climate related events. That means stress on everything from roads to bridges, tunnels to water systems.

We’ve known for decades that America’s physical infrastructure is crumbling, and that America has deferred important infrastructure for far too long. But now it’s official.

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The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation's infrastructure a grade of C-minus on its quadrennial infrastructure report card, up from a D-plus four years ago. The ASCE says the U.S. made some modest and incremental improvements in some infrastructure categories, including on railroads, drinking water systems and inland waterways and ports. 

But 11 of the 17 infrastructure categories evaluated are graded in the "D" range, and as last month's power and water failures due to brutal winter storms and extreme cold show, many infrastructure systems are increasingly susceptible to catastrophic failure.

And they're in need of a major federal investment to keep from getting worse and to withstand the harsh effects of a changing climate. 

So, what is standing in the way of fixing it?

  1. Money. Critical infrastructure improvements can be very expensive.

On the heels of the pandemic and a major COVID-relief bill, the new administration is considering a massive infrastructure bill that some estimate could be in the $3-4 trillion range. 

Cybersecurity spending alone, which is part of critical infrastructure, is set to surpass $105 billion in 2021, according to figures from ABI Research. The focus is on IT networks, systems and data security, and the implications for national security are significant. 

Other critical infrastructure involves water systems, electricity grids, wireless access for rural communities and energy management — all costly projects for states and for the federal government.

  1. Definitions. What is “critical”? Some of the difficulties in legislating around critical infrastructure is that it can be ambiguous and hard to categorize items and hard to foresee events that Mother Nature creates, such as fires, pandemics, weather changes and electricity problems.Should, for example, school classrooms that need new air filtration systems be considered critical infrastructure?
  2. Politics. Infrastructure has long been viewed as a potential area for bipartisan consensus, yet there are still political debates around it. Democrats view it as an opportunity to invest in more climate friendly structures and modes of transportation. Meanwhile, Republicans often worry about the impact of infrastructure spending on the federal deficit, although some infrastructure projects pay for themselves through user fees.

With political will and trust lacking right now between Republicans and Democrats and within the parties, it may prove difficult to get both sides to agree on what to fix first, at what cost and with what approach. But there is so much to be done, even in small pieces, that one hopes there is room for compromise.

Plus, it is fun to fund infrastructure projects if you are creative and imaginative. You can go from lofty ideas like high-speed trains to connect more of the country to the more mundane local bridges that haven’t been reinforced since the 1950s. We could make America look and feel like a 2021 country and receive a better report card next year.

Tara D. Sonenshine served as U.S. under-secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @TSonenshine.