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America's aging infrastructure: What would $2 trillion actually buy?

What $2 trillion in infrastructure looks like
  • Congressional leaders and President Donald Trump agree the U.S. must spend at least $2 trillion to fix the nation's aging infrastructure -- that comes to about 0.8 percent of U.S. GDP.
  • The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America's infrastructure a D+, calling current levels of investment "woefully inadequate." 
  • Perhaps the top priority is fixing the country's crumbling roads, highways and bridges -- the costs for that could easily top $1 trillion.

Even as partisan conflict divides Washington, lawmakers across the political aisle agree on one thing: America's crumbling and outdated roads, bridges, levees and other vital infrastructure are in dire need of repair. There's even general consensus -- at least in principle -- about what that mammoth rebuild might cost: $2 trillion over 25 years.

That's where the good vibes end. Democrat and Republican leaders disagree over how to pay for such an overhaul, and pundits say a major piece of legislation is unlikely to survive the political gantlet before the 2020 election. Still, hope springs eternal: President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are due to meet later this month to discuss how to fund a national infrastructure upgrade. Read on to see what might be on the table.

At least it's not an "F"


In letter-grade terms, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 2017 gave America's infrastructure a D+ , describing investment as "woefully inadequate." It put a total price tag on an overhaul at $2 trillion, or about 0.8 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, over 10 years -- a much shorter time frame that what was discussed in Washington this week. The group said  federal investment in everything from transportation to the nation's energy grid must rise from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of U.S. GDP by 2025 -- and that's just to keep the economy from falling behind.

"We're going to have to see spending go up to levels that we have not seen in inflation-adjusted terms since the New Deal," the Brookings Institution's Adie Tomer said in a podcast. He likened spending $200 billion each year over a decade to the "scale up" of the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Schumer says Dems, Trump agree on $2 trillion for infrastructure

Although finding that money could be difficult as the U.S. reaches historic debt levels, it's imperative--the average family forks over $3,400 annually in extra expenses because of a failure to invest in infrastructure, Tom Smith, the ASCE executive director recently told NPR. Some systems, like parts of the power grid and drinking water networks, date to the 19th century, leaving them vulnerable to natural disasters and even cyberattacks.

No. 1 priority: Roads, bridges, highways 

One of every five miles of highway pavement in the U.S. is in "poor condition," while roads have a "significant and increasing backlog of rehabilitation needs," according to the ASCE.  In 2014, American drivers spent an average of 42 hours per year in traffic, wasting more than 3 billion gallons of fuel. Combined, that cost about $160 billion, the group estimated.

Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the Washington Post this week that the largest chunk of spending in an infrastructure agreement would likely go to roads, bridges and transit, and also could include airports. The tab for repairing highways and bridges alone could top $836 billion. 

Get the lead out


As much as $68 billion is needed to upgrade water and wastewater infrastructure annually over the next decade, according to a 2018 analysis by Bluefield Research. Drinking water is delivered via 1 million miles of pipes across the U.S., much of them laid in the early-to-mid-20th century and with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, according to the ASCE. That's one reason why lead in America's water systems is a national problem.

Wastewater systems, too, are antiquated. An estimated 56 million new users will have to be connected to thousands of treatment plants over the next two decades. The bill? At least $271 billion, according to the group.

Aging dams are another issue. The more than 90,000 dams across the U.S. are half a century old on average. About 15,000 of them are considered "high hazard." The Association of State Dam Safety Officials puts the required investment to fix them at $64 billion.

Broadening broadband

The "vast majority" of the country's broadband infrastructure is privately funded, notes Brookings' Tomer. Yet in what's become known as the "digital divide," roughly 19 million Americans, mostly in rural areas, lack high-speed internet access. 

As CNET points out, the Federal Communications Commission plans to use some $20 billion over the next 10 years to expand broadband in underserved areas. But such plans often come under political fire.

"Federal broadband programs are often criticized for either investing inefficiently in rural America or fraud within pricing support programs," Tomer notes. "Is Congress ready for a robust broadband program that will gather support on both sides of the aisle?"

So last century 

The U.S. power grid, gradually wired together over more than a century, isn't a single cohesive entity, and some parts of it predate the 20th century. Another complication in revamping it is that the grid is overseen by a complex array of ownership that includes both public and private utilities.

Before electricity is delivered to your wall outlet, it flows along a network from power plants through substations, transformers and power lines into one of five main connections, which themselves interlock with systems in Canada and a small part of Mexico. Its operation is overseen by eight regional councils, run under National Electric Reliability Council, the federal government, 50 state and five territorial commissions, public and private companies, and even small cities and towns.

To replace the grid completely would trump even the overall infrastructure plan, costing up to $5 trillion, Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the Webber Energy Group and the University of Texas at Austin, estimated in 2017. That would allow for new kinds of technology including security, smartgrid devices, solar and wind power, he wrote.

Make drivers pay? 

One way to raise money for infrastructure spending: increase the gas tax, a possibility briefly floated -- and quickly abandoned -- by Mr. Trump last year. Some 30 states already use that approach to fund transportation projects, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Even before the 2016 election, Mr. Trump and then Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton both outlined infrastructure goals and how to pay for them. Mr. Trump's  $1.5 trillion proposal last year, which relied mostly on non-government funding, fizzled almost the moment it left the White House. Meanwhile Democrats last year suggested raising the corporate tax rate or rolling back some parts of last year's tax reform package. 

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