Patching over the cracks

By - World Infrastructure Journal

Patching over the cracks

The recent unveiling of a new bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill wraps up what has been weeks of work for members of the US senate. Promising improvements to roads, bridges, and mass-transit systems, the creation of the bill could be seen as the sign of a new age for infrastructural development in America. The reality, however, is that the scale of investment promised only has the potential to help the US address the clear issues and flaws within its existing infrastructure. As such, very similarly to the UK, the US may be soon be experiencing an infrastructural boom. But it will likely fail to even make up for the impact of previously austere attitudes towards public spending.

Following two long sessions that took place over the weekend, the United States senate marked the beginning of August by announcing it had finished drafting a 2,702-page infrastructure bill. The bill promises long-awaited investment into America’s under-resourced roads, bridges, and mass-transit networks.

This new infrastructure bill arrives on the heels of the recent $1.9 trillion economic stimulus and coronavirus aid bill and is expected to be followed up by a $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” bill. This would throw out more money towards the fight against climate change, help millions of immigrants gain legal protections, and fund an expansion of healthcare. As such, the bill would appear to signify a renewed appreciation for the importance of proactive public spending – especially since “it has been decades,” in the words of the Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, “since Congress passed such a significant, stand-alone investment. ”

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Many like Schumer will celebrate that a “bipartisan group of senators have produced a bill that will dedicate substantial resources to repair, maintain, and upgrade [America’s] physical infrastructure." The reality is that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act does not propose to do anything radical or new, but rather looks to address problems within existing infrastructure for the most part. As such, this bill does not represent a deeply-divided congress coming together to put forward a bold new vision for the future – it signals that things have gotten so bad for America’s decaying infrastructure that enemies are being forced to lay aside their differences.

The bill has a rather broad reach, looking to deal with issues regarding roads, rail, internet access, electric vehicle (EV) charging, clean water (in particular the replacement of lead pipes), and investment into hydrogen. This means that it essentially looks to repair and upgrade all major areas of infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently published their 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, in which it was revealed that 43 per cent of US public roadways are in poor or mediocre condition (a number that has remained stagnant over the past several years). Their calculations found that over the past ten years, there has been an investment gap of roughly $2.59 trillion – meaning that the $1 trillion that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act promises will not even cover the half the cost of simply getting America’s infrastructure up to speed.

The report states that should the US hope to “meet future needs, and restore [America’s] global competitive advantage, [the US] must increase investment from all levels of government and the private sector from 2.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2025,”. However, the new infrastructure bill does not look to increase investment long-term.

The overall grade the ASCE gave to US infrastructure was a C-, a slight but hardly significant improvement on the D+ that was assigned in 2017 and 2013. As the years go by, and inadequate action is taken to get public infrastructure up to speed, the cost of doing so only increases - between 2013 and 2017, the ASCE quoted “cost to improve” increase a full $1 trillion. This leaves the US in a similar predicament to Britain, in so far as both countries are attempting to reinvent themselves as green economies without the necessary infrastructural support to do so – and failing to take the necessary action to deal with that problem.

The UK government, for example, has already scaled back its original promise to ban the sale of combustion engine vehicles by 2030 (moving the date back to 2040). This is in large part due to a lack of support from other areas of infrastructure, and realism from the planners. The initial plan was to invest £2.8 billion in electric vehicles, and the creation of long-lasting batteries in UK gigafactories, and an increase in the number of EV charging ports.

This seems like a piece of forward-thinking and ambitious policy until the £2.8 billion figure is put into perspective by the £37 billion the UK receives annually in revenue from carbon taxes such as fuel levies and vehicle excise duty. While the plan is currently being revised, it is reasonable to assume that the scale of investment will not significantly change.

In fact, the similarities go even further. Aside from renewable energy production, the US and the UK find themselves on very similar footing with regards to most areas of infrastructure – particularly with regards to roads, water, and damns. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2019 Global Competitiveness Report, the UK receives an overall infrastructure grade of 88.9, only 1 better than the 87.9 received by the United States. As such, there is not much for the UK to learn from the recent efforts of the US Senate. Rather, the real lesson will be in five years time, when due to a lack of support and investment both countries find themselves even further adrift of their 2030 and 2050 climate targets. By then, however, it may be too late.

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