President Obama's State of the Union Address: The Infrastructure Challenge

President Obama's speech touched on the terrible state of America's infrastructure. Eliza Griswold on what repairing it will cost—and where he fell short.

President Obama spoke tonight of the embarrassing grade—the D—that American engineers have given the nation’s infrastructure: its bridges, roads, sewers, levees, and the list goes on.

The 2003 New York City Blackout, the 2005 devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 collapse of I-35W in Minneapolis are harbingers of a larger catastrophe. This crisis is largely hidden. Like the body’s web of pumping blood, veins, and arteries, we take this system for granted until it fails.

Here are the facts behind our crumbling infrastructure: a cheat sheet of impending disasters. Consider, in alphabetical order, the following marks: Aviation D; Bridges C; Dams D; Drinking Water D-; Energy D+; Hazardous Waste D; Inland Waterways D-; Levees D-; Public Parks and Recreation C-; Rail C-; Roads D-; Schools D; Solid Waste C+; Transit D; Wastewater D-.

In order to maintain our current level of service, the American Society of Civil Engineers argues that the U.S. must invest $1.1 trillion in its crumbling infrastructure. Yet today, we spend only 2.5 percent of our GDP on infrastructure. China and India spend 8 percent and 9 percent, respectively. One might argue that China and India are just now building systems the United States already has. The problem is that America’s roads, bridges, grids, and water systems were designed with a life expectancy of 50 to 75 years. Already past retirement, these systems are aging faster than the baby boomers. Constructed to hurtle us into the industrial age, America’s infrastructure is now holding us back, retarding our progress.

So where is the money to fix what has to be fixed going to come from? Not the 2009 stimulus package—not really. Not enough of the $787 billion went to infrastructure building. The money that did went straight to “shovel-ready” jobs, not the longer term planning and smart engineering required for the 21st century. To be fair, let’s note the successes like 24,000 miles of roads currently being repaired and 1,100 bridges, thanks to stimulus dollars. Those numbers shrink in significance, however, when armed with the fact that one out of four of the nation’s 590,000 bridges is currently deficient. That leaves 146,400 bridges alone in dire need of service.

President Obama already knows this is a hard bill to foot. In 2010, he announced $50 billion more in infrastructure spending—an idea that went nowhere thanks to congressional elections. But $8 billion of that was intended for high-speed rail, which is not always the solution the president seems to think it should be.

He is also talking about the need to start an infrastructure bank. This isn’t a new idea. The rallying cry for a national infrastructure bank has gone out since there was a budget surplus during the Clinton administration. Led by economist Sherle Schwenninger and investment banker Bernard L. Schwarz, this innovative idea is finally catching on in the White House. (Full disclosure: Both Schwenninger and Schwarz are involved in the New America Foundation, where I am a senior fellow.)

This crisis is largely hidden. Like the body’s web of pumping blood, veins, and arteries, we take this system for granted until it fails.

These ideas are a good start, but they’re not enough. Right now in Western Pennsylvania, take any county road and you’re likely to drive past a sign that reads American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Putting America Back to Work. The signs, paid for with stimulus dollars, are designed to recall Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. But this isn’t the New Deal, and perhaps it doesn’t need to be.

Some of America’s infrastructure doesn’t need to be rebuilt; it needs to be repurposed. In New York City, there is the most stunning example of this repurposing at work. A clunky defunct elevated train track has found a new life as the High Line. It’s hardly a solution for all of America—unpaved parking lots!—but it’s an innovative idea that began with an honest assessment of the assets we already have, and how best to use them.

State of the Union 2011

Eliza Griswold, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Tenth Parallel.