The infrastructure bill in the U.S. has been signed into law. At the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), they are celebrating the fruition of a couple of decades, at least, of hard work publicizing the decaying infrastructure and lobbying for a fix-it bill. Countless delegations have visited the White House and met with staff to present their case. And something for their efforts is better than nothing.
They also started a grading system, giving an overall grade — currently C minus, a notch above the previous one. The bill seeks improvement in roads, bridges and transit although it falls short of the ASCE estimates for what is needed. For example, the bill contains $39 billion for transit (ASCE grade of D minus) but there is a backlog of $176 billion that is needed. Given Republican opposition to spending and the compromises made to pass the bill, the administration got what they could — they can always fight for more later.
This opposition against infrastructure spending is somewhat incomprehensible because it generates jobs and grows the economy. Too much spending, too fast has inflationary potential but that is caused by too much money chasing too few goods, usually not when there is a tangible product — improved transit, roads and bridges in this case. And then there are also other ways of checking inflation.
This bill is a start but still a long way from having high speed cross-country electric trains as in other major industrialized countries. These are the least polluting and especially less than airplanes which emit six times more CO2 per passenger mile.
Why is the U.S. so lagging in high-speed rail when compared with Europe and Japan? Distances are one reason given although these are a function of time. No one would have thought of commuting 30 miles each way to work in the 19th century but it is not uncommon now for some to be quite willing to sit 45 minutes each way on a train for the pleasure of living in the greenery of suburbia.
The bill also includes $110 billion for roads and bridges. Unfortunately the backlog of repair has left 42.7 percent of roads in sub-standard condition costing motorists an estimated $130 billion per year in extra vehicle repair and maintenance. Some $435 billion is now needed to repair existing roads plus $125 billion for bridges, $120 billion for system expansion and $105 billion for system enhancements like increasing safety — a necessary improvement given a changing environment such as an increase in bicycle traffic. Allowing for round-off discrepancies, the total amounts to $786 billion (in the funding and future need section of reference). Increases in severe weather events have also had their effect, causing damage to roadways and further burdening the repair budget.
New technologies (in the innovation section of reference) like advanced pavement monitoring on key roads, using moisture and temperature sensors embedded in the roadway, now make it possible to assess pavements quickly without impacting road users. This leads to earlier repair and in addition new materials increase the life cycle. Much of this requires increased investment up front to take advantage of the new innovations.
Above all one can never afford to forget that a good transport system acts like a supercharger for the economic engine.