The $550 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed this summer by the U.S. Senate is a welcome investment in our roads, waterways, ports, airports, power grid, and other elements of our crumbling infrastructure. But a $550 billion shot in the arm isn’t enough. The restoration of American infrastructure also requires sustainable investment in and a recommitment to something that doesn’t generate much excitement: maintenance of the systems already in place.
To understand why the Biden administration is pushing this bill, it’s important to recognize just how compromised much of our infrastructure is. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Report Card for American Infrastructure, eleven of the eighteen infrastructure categories in the United States score D+ or worse, meaning they are “below standard,” “approaching the end of service life,” and exhibiting “significant deterioration” and a “strong risk of failure.” The only two categories to score above a C+ were our rail system and our ports.
Of the nation’s 617,084 highway bridges, 42 percent are now more than fifty years old—the anticipated lifespan for a bridge—and 12 percent are past eighty; one out of every thirteen bridges in the United States is “structurally deficient.” Our public drinking-water system averages 250,000 to 300,000 water-main breaks per year (one every two minutes), leading to 6 billion gallons of lost water; at the current rate of repair, it would take two hundred years to replace the entire system. Our electrical grid is aging, with more than 70 percent of transmission lines in the second half of their expected fifty-year lifespan and some components more than 100 old—even as data-storage needs and electric-vehicle use impose ever-increasing demands.
These critical systems are just the tip of the iceberg. Other systems rating a D+ or below include aviation, stormwater, wastewater, dams, levees, and hazardous waste. The total cost to restore all of our infrastructure systems to safe levels is $5.9 trillion over the next ten years. The ASCE estimates that $3.3 trillion of these costs would be covered under current spending levels. With the $550 billion provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there would still be a roughly $2 trillion shortfall. “After years and years of ‘infrastructure week,’ we are on the cusp of an ‘infrastructure decade,’” President Biden said when the Senate approved the bill. But $550 billion over a decade is only a quarter of the funding needed to do the job.