Infrastructure Weak? Yes, So Let’s Spend Wisely

Well, they do say everything is bigger in the Big Apple.

That certainly seems true about the cost of, well, anything. (“Beer here!” At Yankee Stadium, that’ll be $14!) 


Yes, whopping price tags had my eyebrows raised and my mind reeling last week while in Manhattan for the first BuiltWorlds‘ All Hands on Tech show held on the East Coast and graciously hosted by FieldLens. Happy to be back in my hometown, however briefly, it occurred to me afterward that I had just seen three ongoing infrastructure mega-projects worth a combined $12 billion to $13 billion. And that doesn’t even include the estimated $10-billion replacement facility for NYC’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, now the subject of an international design competition. (Again, that’s for one bus terminal!)

The other massive public works projects that I visited, or at least passed by, were the newly opened, $4-billion, Oculus train station at the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind; the new, 3.1-mile-long, twin-span, $4-billion, New York Bridge over the Hudson River that will replace the Tappan Zee Bridge; and the ongoing, $4-billion extreme makeover of LaGuardia Airport, now in the first year of a projected six-year program. That decades-old need is finally being met thanks to a public-private partnership (P3) that may or may not be a model for the spotty project delivery method. P3 infrastructure projects already have loyal fans in Colorado, California, and Canada, but many in Texas, Illinois, and Indiana are much less enthusiastic.

  • For a deep dive into the P3 topic, watch our full video from BW’s own P3 event, held May 5.

As awed as I was by the Oculus, and as repulsed as I still am by my grimy memories of the much-reviled Port Authority Bus Terminal — Three decades later and I still can’t ‘un-see’ that homeless fellow bathing in the men’s room sink! — I can’t help but worry about our national spending priorities. As we now celebrate national Infrastructure Week (May 16-23), much decision-making seems out of whack, even when finite public funds finally are committed to public works.

Last week’s release of the American Society of Civil EngineersFailure to Act: Closing the Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future found that inadequate infrastructure is costing every U.S. family $3,400 a year in disposable income. The study, an update to the initial series ASCE released prior to the 2013 Report Card, estimates that the 10-year needs across 10 categories of infrastructure is $3.3 trillion, including a $1.4 trillion investment gap. (The next ASCE Infrastructure Report Card is due in 2017.)

The gap comprises:

  • $1.1 trillion in surface transportation network including roads, bridges, transit, and commuter rail;
  • Electricity infrastructure requires an additional $177 billion;
  • The third highest investment gap is $105 billion for water and wastewater infrastructure;
  • Airports, via the highly anticipated NextGen technology upgrade, will require an added $42 billion;
  • America’s inland waterways and ports need an additional $15 billion to close their funding gap.

According to ASCE, our overdue infrastructure bill is costing us time and money. The report identifies the following economic ramifications:

  • $3.9 trillion in GDP, more than the 2013 GDP of Germany;
  • $7 trillion of business sales;
  • 2.5 million job losses in the year 2025;
  • $3,400 in a family’s annual disposable income each year from 2016 to 2025, equal to $9.33 a day.

These findings underscore those from the initial Failure to Act series, showing how the benefits of infrastructure investment reverberate through every sector of the economy, while the economic losses that come from deferred investment grow worse over time. Furthermore, the longer we delay, the more likely we are to need to replace the infrastructure instead of just repairing it.

“America is currently spending more failing to act on our investment gap than we would to close it”

— ASCE ‘Failure To Act’ report – May 10, 2016

Inefficient infrastructure is costing every household $9.30 a day. However, if every family instead invested an additional $3 a day per household, we could close the infrastructure investment gap in just 10 years, says ASCE.

Those calculations may, indeed, be true, and the hyperbole is no doubt warranted, but I have an additional concern that I feel compelled to voice here. Please, let us spend wisely.

When precious, public dollars are finally allocated for public works projects, we still need to get the biggest bang for the buck. In this ongoing, anti-tax, anti-government phase of our 230-year-old American Experiment, it is arguably more crucial than ever that tax dollars are spent in the most efficient and effective way possible to benefit the most citizens.

Otherwise, the public will lose the will even to act in its own best interests.

After all, when tax-payers are billed more than $14 billion for just one Big Apple combo platter of deluxe train station + grand slam bus station, that is a surefire recipe for cynicism and resentment about public investment. And frankly, that is something our fragile infrastructure future really cannot afford.