The present state of the American infrastructure—roads, bridges, water supply, and the like—has been given an overall grade of D by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which regularly issues infrastructure report cards. The engineers' estimate of how much it will cost to raise the grade from poor to acceptable is $2.2-trillion over a five-year period. Such a vast amount of money is unlikely to be available over the next decade.
When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus bill, was passed in 2009, the word "infrastructure" was frequently invoked. Since then, prominent signs have gone up proclaiming that paving and other highway projects owe their very existence to stimulus money. However, less than $100-billion of the $787-billion total has in fact gone toward infrastructure construction projects.
In the meantime, our infrastructure continues to age and deteriorate. In many of our older cities, some of the cast-iron pipes that bring water to homes and businesses are a century old. Earlier this year a burst water main in the Boston area resulted in an eight-million-gallon-per-hour leak and led the governor to declare a state of emergency. Affected residents were warned to boil their water before drinking it.
As surely as water runs downhill, so will our infrastructure over the coming decade. Putting off preventive maintenance and replacing obsolete equipment are tempting ways to find cuts in a deficit-ridden municipal budget. New York City took that path during its fiscal crisis of the 1970s, and large and small cities across the country can be expected to do so in the coming years. Even if such action helps local economies recover by the year 2020, the infrastructure will be in such a sorry state that it will be near impossible for it to earn a passing grade.
Potholes know no politics; they will continue to develop as surely as rain turns to ice in winter. Bridges will corrode and collapse. Pipes will crack and burst. The physical foundations of our civilization will crumble under the weight of our complaints about it and our neglect of it. It will happen so fast that it will be impossible to keep up with its repair.
Infrastructure is a fancy contemporary term for what used to be known as public works. The change in terminology may have helped distract the voting public from seeing it as their collective obligation and a civic responsibility. But no matter what it is called, we will continue to depend upon our infrastructure for our safety and quality of life. If we do not recognize the urgency of maintaining it, we can expect the deterioration of our infrastructure to be a defining idea of what it means to be a citizen in a declining civilization.