Build Infrastructure for the FUTURE.

AuthorMazur, Laurie

On an ordinary day, you probably don't think much about infrastructure. You twist a knob, and clean water flows from the tap. The daily commute is uneventful. Wires transmit electricity, powering everything from dialysis machines to Netflix. The mechanisms that enable these wonders remain--for most of us--out of sight and out of mind.

But, in twenty-first-century America, that may be changing. There are the epic failures: drinking water poisoned by lead or algae; commuter train derailments; collapsing highway bridges and pedestrian walkways. And then there are the daily frustrations, including gridlocked traffic, power outages, and rising utility rates. These failures, big and small, illuminate the dire state of our nation's infrastructure.

In 2017, U.S. infrastructure received a dismal "D+" in a quadrennial report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers. According to ASCE, we'll need to spend $2 trillion over ten years to bring water, transportation, the electric grid, and other systems up to a passable "B."

Consider the systems that deliver clean water to your tap. Many of those pipes and pumps date back to the Eisenhower Administration--or, in the case of some plumbing in Washington, D.C., to the era of the Civil War. There are some 240,000 water main breaks in the United States every year, which waste more than two trillion gallons of treated drinking water.

While infrastructure needs are growing, federal support has shrunk, aside from a brief flurry of spending funded by President Barack Obama's stimulus package in 2009. The federal government's share of capital spending on water infrastructure, for instance, fell from 63 percent in 1977 to just 9 percent in 2014.

In cities with aging water systems, utilities are raising rates to make up for declining federal investment. The lowest 20 percent of income earners now pay up to one-fifth of their monthly income on water. In Detroit, thousands of families had their water shut off in 2018 when they couldn't keep up with skyrocketing bills.

Worse, estimates by the civil engineers organization do not factor in climate change, which is now upon us. As the world faces a ten-year deadline to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid catastrophic warming, the transportation and power sectors together account for nearly 60 percent of U.S. emissions. Every time a highway is widened or a new coal-fired power plant built, we are doubling down on fossil-fuel dependence--and locking in high emissions for decades to come. We need to replace or augment current systems with carbon-light alternatives.

At the same time, our infrastructure must be retooled to withstand the climate impacts that are now inevitable. Communities are confronting problems they've never seen before, like extreme heat in Montana, annual "500-year" rain events in...

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