U.S. National Infrastructure Receives a Barely Passing Grade

Source: BigStock Photo.

President Trump gave his first State of the Union address January 29, laying out his agenda for 2018. (Note: Officially, his 2017 appearance in the U.S. House of Representatives was an “address to a joint session of Congress.” Coming so soon after the inauguration, it is not referred to as a State of the Union speech.) A significant piece of that agenda was addressing the state of the national infrastructure, an issue in great need of attention, but one that has bedeviled past administrations.

Infrastructure as a category is a diverse one. It encompasses a wide range of matters including roads, bridges, waterways, railways, energy sources, aviation, and dams. There is broad agreement that the U.S. system is in need of attention and improvement. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. a grade of D+ for its overall infrastructure quality. The study cited eye-opening statistics, including the following:

  • Roads: More than two out of every five miles of America’s urban interstates are congested, and traffic delays cost the country $160 billion in wasted time and fuel in 2014. One out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition, and our roads have a significant and increasing backlog of rehabilitation needs.
  • Bridges: The U.S. has 614,387 bridges, almost four in 10 of which are 50 years or older. 56,007 – 9.1 percent – of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient in 2016, and on average, there were 188 million trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day.
  • Dams: The average age of the 90,580 dams in the U.S. is 56 years. The overall number of high-hazard potential dams is increasing, with the number climbing to nearly 15,500 in 2016. Due to the lack of investment, the number of deficient high-hazard potential dams has also climbed to an estimated 2,170 or more.
  • Drinking Water: Drinking water is delivered via one million miles of pipes across the country. Many of those pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century with a life span of 75 to 100 years. The quality of drinking water in the U.S. remains high, but legacy and emerging contaminants continue to require close attention. While water consumption is down, there are still an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the U.S., wasting more than two trillion gallons of treated drinking water.

Infrastructure is an issue widely believed to have the potential for bipartisan interest and agreement in Washington. It seems to be an agenda item for every President, regardless of party affiliation, but the silver bullet for achievable reform has been elusive. Although specific details of the Trump Administration’s $1.5 trillion plan were not revealed during the State of the Union, several broad principles could be identified:

  • Incentives for cities and states to fund local projects through dedicated revenue streams
  • Block grants for increased broadband access in rural areas
  • Expansion of existing federal infrastructure loan programs
  • Encouraging innovative transportation efforts
  • Transportation workforce development programs
  • Permitting reform to shorten government approval time for infrastructure projects

While there does seem to be agreement about the importance of fixing and improving U.S. infrastructure, the challenge will be to identify how to fund such a massive undertaking. Many on both sides of the aisle are hesitant to allocate new dollars without offsetting cuts or are opposed to potential cuts to existing programs. Attempts to raise the gas tax to fund improvements have gone nowhere. There are also questions about the availability of state and local funding in this time of tight budgets at all levels of government, as well as concerns about how private investment dollars will be raised.

An issue that may surface in the infrastructure debate is truck weight efficiency. A new coalition has formed called SHIP – Safer Hauling and Infrastructure Protection – that is advocating for heavier trucks on our nation’s interstates with the addition of a sixth axle. So the rig is not wider or longer, but will accommodate more weight without any more tire pressure on the roadway given that extra axle. The coalition is being funded by pulp and paper manufacturers and brewers like Anheuser Busch that have long complained that trucks leaving their facilities are half empty because they weigh out before they cube out. A similar proposal was defeated during consideration of the last highway bill, but shippers are committed to getting something passed in this issue space.

Infrastructure impacts us all, not only as businesses, but as everyday citizens living our lives. The Hardwood Federation will continue to follow the debate with interest and will engage as appropriate…not only to meet the needs of the hardwood business sector, but to meet the needs of the men and women who depend on that sector for their livelihood.

Dana Cole is Executive Director at the Hardwood Federation, a Washington D.C.-based hardwood industry trade association that represents thousands of hardwood businesses in every state in the U.S. and acts as the industry’s advocacy voice on Capitol Hill. She can be reached at dana.cole@hardwoodfederation.com.

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