Americans need to face the sobering reality that the country’s infrastructure is in trouble. Most of it was built in the 20th century, during the greatest age of construction the world has seen. The continent was wired for electricity and phone service, and colossal projects, including the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge and the interstate highway system, were completed—along with thousands of smaller bridges, water tunnels and more. We are living off an inheritance of steel-and-concrete wonders, grander than anything built by Rome, constructed by everyday giants bearing trowels, welding torches and rivet guns.
To fix our infrastructure, from dilapidated levees to congested roadways and ports, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has estimated that the country needs to spend $1.6 trillion over five years. Only $1 trillion of that, the organization says, has been allocated or promised. Accepting those numbers, we need an additional $600 billion to reverse the slide of infrastructure, a figure that seems as difficult to produce as it is to comprehend.
Or is it? Spread over five years, ASCE is calling for $120 billion per year. The economic stimulus package signed into law in February is sending $168 billion out to individuals to spend, in a best-case scenario, on new TVs and restaurant meals. That money could have bought a lot of concrete. While more funds are needed, how they’re spent is equally important. New information technology, fresh engineering and advanced materials can help us not just restore, but improve our infrastructure in the coming century. Planned and managed properly, next-gen projects can be smarter and more resilient than what came before. Engineers and construction workers know how to get the job done. But first, we must gather the national will.
Our physical lives are bounded and shaped by the infrastructure of the 20th century, which we occupy but don’t maintain.
We won’t have the money or cheap energy needed to fix this slowly collapsing legacy of steel, concrete, and macadam. We will fill the potholes, and rebuild the occasional bridge, but we are going to have to imagine new transportation and energy approaches that leave the current infrastructure to fall down.
Helium-filled giant zeppelins instead of trucks, bicycles instead of cars, local power grids instead of national ones, reopening canals instead of repaving highways.
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