US Infrastructure

Published on: May 2, 2019fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round

This week, President Trump met with Democratic lawmakers to talk infrastructure and apparently agreed to invest $2 trillion into US roads, bridges, and more.


The Story

The US’s infrastructure is saying ‘halp.’

The Background

Quick primer. Infrastructure = roads, highways, and bridges, oh my. But also airports, power grids, public school buildings, transit systems, wastewater management, dams, and levees.

Wow. And why is it all saying ‘halp’?

US infrastructure has a lot of gray hairs. Most of it was built decades ago, and can’t handle a population that’s nearly doubled since the 1960s. Plus, there’s climate change, which has been tied to more extreme weather events like hurricanes and storms. Problem, because dams and levees are straining to manage intense flooding, which puts communities at risk and can lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

So you’re saying we need to get on this.

Yes. Every few years, the American Society of Civil Engineers grades US infrastructure. Right now, infrastructure has the shape of a D+ on its forehead. Here are some of the issues that come from repeatedly hitting ‘remind me later’ on infrastructure:

Public safety...It’s estimated that poor road designs and conditions contribute to thousands of deaths each year. Hundreds more reportedly die, get hurt, or fall ill each year due to failures with bridges, dams, and roads. Today, more than 47,000 bridges in the US are considered “structurally deficient.”

Whoa what?

That means they’re safe to use but need repairs.

Cool cool. What else?

The economy...loses more than $120 billion a year due to traffic delays. And $35 billion a year because of airport delays, in part due to infrastructure issues related to things like air traffic control, airport operations, and heavy traffic. Meanwhile, 19 million Americans – mainly in rural and lower-income areas – don’t have high-speed Internet.

Why isn’t the government addressing this?

It is...sort of. Most federal funding for things like highway maintenance and transit projects comes from the Highway Trust Fund, which gives grants directly to states. But that fund – which relies heavily on a gas tax that hasn’t been raised in decades – is on track to run out of money by 2021. In 2015, President Obama signed a bill greenlighting more than $300 billion for infrastructure over five years. But it still wasn’t enough. And if you did the math, you know that fund year.

The Big Issue

Spoiler, it’s money. The US needs an estimated trillions of dollars to make its infrastructure shiny and new again. The upside is that infrastructure is considered a rare bipartisan issue among Republicans and Democrats. The bump in the road is that they haven’t yet agreed on how to pay for the upgrades. Or which pieces of infrastructure – beyond roads and bridges – will be addressed. We get into the latest funding debate on Capitol Hill in Skimm This.

The Debate

Enter: the gas tax, the main source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund. It hasn’t been raised on the federal level in over two decades. And there are a lot of opinions about whether that should happen in order to fund infrastructure's piggy bank.

  • Team Don’t Touch the Gas Tax warns that lower-income Americans disproportionately feel the hurt from a hike. Some Democrats instead want President Trump to reverse tax cuts for the wealthy.

  • Team Hit the Gas (Tax) says this is the best option on the table for getting the money the US needs for infrastructure. That raising it could help fight climate change. And that there’s a way to do it without hurting the poor.

The Impact

Globally...The US ranks highly on economic competitiveness...for now. But some EU countries – like Norway and Germany – built their infrastructure with resilience in mind. And have an easier time bouncing back quickly after disruptive events like storms and cyberattacks. Without fixing infrastructure – and with the growing threat from things like climate change – the US risks becoming less competitive than countries with infrastructure built to last.

You...When you drive, take a plane, use public transit, use the internet, or drink tap water you’re relying on US infrastructure. That experience can be safe and efficient...or not. Meanwhile, how lawmakers choose to address the issue (or don’t) could impact your wallet at the gas station, during tax season (if parts of Trump’s tax law are reversed to help pay for updates), or potentially years down the road as the US continues to grow its national debt.


Infrastructure touches pretty much every aspect of everyday life. And a lot of it is crumbling. Many see addressing this as an investment in the economy and public safety for future generations. The challenge is figuring out the fine print.

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