America: On the road to ruin?

Roger L. Kemp, Ph.D.
City Manager
City of Vallejo, California

The term "infrastructure" refers to the basic facilities and installations necessary for society to operate. These include transportation and communication systems (highways, airports, bridges, telephone lines, cellular telephone towers, post offices, etc.); educational and health facilities, water, gas, and electrical systems (dams, power lines, power plants, aqueducts, etc.); and miscellaneous facilities such as prisons, asylums, national park structures, and other improvements to real property owned by government. In the United States, the infrastructure is divided into private and public sectors (in the latter case, divided again between facilities owned by municipal, county, state, and federal governments, as well as many special district authorities such as the Port Authority of New York and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, to name a few).

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), there are fifteen major categories of government infrastructure. These infrastructure categories include:

  • Aviation
  • Bridges
  • Dams
  • Drinking Water
  • Energy
  • Hazardous Waste
  • Navigable Waterways
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Rail
  • Roads
  • Schools
  • Security
  • Solid Waste
  • Transit
  • Wastewater

Fiscal Crisis
All levels of government in the U.S. are facing a new era of capital financing and infrastructure management. Revenues that once were available for capital construction, restoration, and maintenance, have either diminished or evaporated entirely in recent years. Portions of the public infrastructure that were once adequate are now experiencing signs of distress, even decay, with no end in sight to the ongoing deterioration of America's infrastructure.

Local, state, as well as the federal government, are now subjected to unprecedented fiscal demands for public services in an environment of limited taxation and dwindling financial resources. Throughout the nation, many state government deficits loom ominously on the horizon. At the same time, the federal deficit is at an all-time high. These negative fiscal circumstances, experts believe, are likely to continue for many years to come.

Congested highways, overflowing sewers, and corroding bridges are constant reminders of the looming crisis that jeopardizes our nation's prosperity and the quality of life for our citizens. With new grades for the first time since 2001, the condition of our nation's infrastructure has shown little to no improvement since receiving a collective grade of D+ in 1988, with some areas sliding toward failing grades. ASCE's 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure assesses the same 12 categories as in 2001, and added three new categories. The grade comparison of America's infrastructure between the ASCE's most recent 2005 survey and its original survey in 1988 are highlighted below.

  • Aviation - Received a grade of B- in 1988, and a grade of D+ in 2005.
  • Bridges - Received a grade of C+ in 1988, and a grade of C in 2005.
  • Dams - While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D in 2005.
  • Drinking Water - Received a grade of B- in 1988, and a grade of D- in 2005.
  • Energy - While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D in 2005.
  • Hazardous Waste - This category receive a grade of D in 1988 and in 2005.
  • Navigable Waters - While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D- in 2005.
  • Parks & Recreation - While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of C- in 2005.
  • Rail - While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of C- in 2005.
  • Roads - Received a grade of C+ in 1988, and a grade of D in 2005.
  • Schools - While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D in 2005.
  • Security - This category did not exist in 1988, and insufficient data is available to properly evaluate this category (i.e., this is a new category since 9/11/01).
  • Solid Waste - Received a grade of C- in 1988, and a grade of C+ in 2005. This is the only infrastructure category to increase during its grade since the original "graded" evaluation some 17 years ago.
  • Transit - Received a grade of C- in 1988, and a grade of D+ in 2005.
  • Wastewater - Received a grade of C in 1988, and a grade of D- in 2005.

In short, U.S. roads, bridges, sewers, and dams are crumbling and need a $1.6 trillion overhaul, but prospects for improvement are grim. This is the amount of money necessary over the next five years to restore and rebuild major components of our nation's public infrastructure. The nation's drinking water system alone needs a public investment of $11 billion a year to replace facilities, as well as comply with regulations, to meet our future drinking water needs. Federal grant funding, in 2005, is only 10% of this amount. As a result, aging wastewater systems are discharging billions of gallons of untreated sewage into surface waters each year, according to the ASCE's report.

And the signs of our deteriorating infrastructure go on. Poor roads cost motorists $54 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, while Americans spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic jams. The country's power transmission system also needs to be modernized, the report said. While demand continues to rise, transmission capacity failed to keep pace and actually fell by 2 percent in 2001. As of 2003, 27 percent of the nation's bridges were structurally deficient or obsolete, a slight improvement from the 28.5 percent in 2000. It is alarming to note, but since 1998, the number of unsafe dams in the country rose by 33 percent to more than 3,500.

Several national professional associations have officially endorsed ASCE's 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure. They include the American Public Works Association; the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association; the U. S. Conference of Mayors; the National Heavy and Highway Alliance; the American Road and Transportation Builders Association; and the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Economic Development
It should be emphasized that the improvement and maintenance of our nation's public infrastructure, at all levels of government, is critically linked to economic development in all regions of the country. Economic development programs, as most people are aware, bring in additional private-sector investment, add much-needed jobs to the local economy, as well as provide additional tax revenues to fund future public services (for all levels of government). An adequate infrastructure makes a city, county, state, and nation more desirable from an economic development perspective. Without an adequate infrastructure, the financial plight of all levels of government is likely to deteriorate even further in the future. Hence, finding solutions to the country's infrastructure problems is an important issue facing public officials (and citizens) in every level of government.

If the public officials continue to let these critical infrastructure issues remain unresolved, the next generation of political leaders at each level of government will either have to raise massive taxes to repair and maintain their government's respective portion of the infrastructure, or be forced to close many public facilities due to their disrepair, deterioration, or decay. In short, major portions of our public infrastructure will become unsafe for the public to use. Economic development programs will also diminish if these infrastructure issues are not properly addressed and resolved, creating lost opportunities for private sector investment, the jobs they would bring, as well as the much-needed revenues that could be used to maintain essential public services at all levels of government.

National Leadership is Needed
While the views expressed by many experts who research and write on infrastructure issues throughout the nation point to a general agreement on the magnitude and complexity of this problem, little agreement exists on a consensus on how to achieve a comprehensive nationwide solution to restoring and maintaining America's public infrastructure. Although there is disagreement as to an acceptable solution, one point seems obviously clear: The necessary leadership and policy direction required to properly address this national issue must come from the highest level of government. It is only within a national policy framework that states, counties, and cities can work together to improve the current condition of our public works facilities. Local and state governments alone, because of their many diverse policies, multiple budget demands, and varied fiscal constraints, cannot be relied upon to achieve the comprehensive solution required to solve this national problem.

The current philosophy of our national government has been to let the lower levels of government (states, counties, and cities) solve their own problems, regardless of the nature of their complexity or the magnitude of funds needed. The political posture of our national government needs to become more positive and proactive if a solution is to be forthcoming. For these reasons, it is obvious that assertive leadership is needed from the federal government to make the difficult policy decisions, as well as to approve the funding requirements, necessary to solve our country's infrastructure problem. Fundamental changes are needed to redirect national priorities about how public capital investments are made. Public officials, at all levels of government, can no longer merely build public facilities without adequately maintaining them in future years.

The Future
As the severity of this issue escalates, and citizens become more aware of the increased costs of postponing a decision on this pressing issue, taxpayers may be more willing to become politically involved in solving this issue in the future. Taxpayers cannot be expected, however, to foot the entire bill for a solution, since the majority of our country's capital assets have been constructed over the past several decades, some over a century ago, and frequently with the assistance of grant funds from our federal government. This bullet is "too big to bite" by other levels of government alone.

Also, cities, counties, and states have relative degrees of wealth based on their taxing capacity, bonding levels and ratings, and budgetary reserves. Because of this, many lower levels of government do not have the financial capability, even with increased taxation, to adequately address those issues related to restoring and maintaining America's infrastructure. It is safe to say that most citizens throughout the country already feel overtaxed by all levels of government. Even though citizens may be willing to assist financially, a major redirection of federal government funds will be required for a truly comprehensive and coordinated nationwide response to our country's outstanding infrastructure problems and issues.

Even with some additional taxes and user fees, funding will be limited at all levels of government. For this reason, argue those who deal with infrastructure issues, national priorities must be established for the replacement and restoration of capital facilities at all levels of government, starting with those projects that are necessary to ensure the public's security, health, and safety. Funds from the national government must be targeted for infrastructure projects from less important operational programs with limited, or only special interest, constituencies. Within the framework of national policies, existing federal grant programs must be redirected to provide the necessary funds to assist in the financing of those capital projects necessary to restore America's public works infrastructure to ensure the security, as well as the health and safety, of all our citizens throughout the country.

Our nation is not "on the road to ruin," as some experts explain, but merely going through the transition period required to properly sort out and arrive at politically-acceptable, long-term solutions to this critical and complex policy issue that plagues all levels of government—federal, state, county, and city alike. If our nation's infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate even further in the future, possibly to the point of decay, the cost of resolving this issue will escalate significantly in future years, for all taxpayers. If this happens, economic development programs will also continue to suffer, and the revenues they could generate will not be available to assist in restoring our public infrastructure.

Dr. Roger Kemp is the City Manager of the City of Vallejo, California. He holds a Ph.D. degree in public administration, and is a graduate of the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University. He has written and lectured widely on issues relating to America's infrastructure. He can be reached at (707) 648-4575 or