Early Wednesday, a building collapsed in Philadelphia and trapped more than a dozen people. Four of them are currently receiving treatment at local hospitals. One death has been reported so far. Although the current cause is unclear, Wednesday's events should serve as an important reminder about the sorry state of American infrastructure.
After the death of more than a 1,000 people in last month’s building collapse in Bangladesh and the release of a recent report that around 60% of the other garment factories in Dhaka are vulnerable to collapse, the current focus on infrastructure in the developing world is both necessary and justified. People should continue to pressure both the Bangladeshi government and the Western companies that own these factories to enact significant infrastructure reforms.
Yet while sending admittedly-valid criticism abroad, we should also understand the present condition of American infrastructure at home. Today's events in Philadelphia were not idiosyncratic by any means. Just two weeks ago, a bridge in Washington collapsed for reasons that officials are still investigating. Considering it occurred at approximately 7 p.m. on a bridge used by 70,000 vehicles a day, it is surely a miracle that no one died and only three people were injured.
Whether we will be so lucky in the future remains unclear.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently graded America’s infrastructure as a D+. For the record, a C indicates that “some elements exhibit significant deficiencies … with increasing vulnerability to risk” and a D indicates that “condition and capacity are of significant concern with strong risk of failure.”
And it is not just a public safety issue. William Galston at the Brookings Institution has persuasively outlined the various reports demonstrating the economic need to develop our infrastructure. The Building America’s Future Educational Fund estimates that Americans spent 4.8 billion hours in traffic in 2010 at a cost of $101 billion and 1.9 billion gallons of fuel. Similarly, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that, if unaddressed, failures in infrastructure will cost the US economy $3.1 trillion in GDP and $1.1 trillion in total trade as well as 3.5 million jobs by 2020. In Burlington, Wash., which received most of the traffic from the bridge that collapsed last month, the economic costs are much more immediate. The New York Times has reported that, the congestion, detours, and other expenses have caused sales to plummet 50 and 80% according to local store owners.
The repercussions of infrastructure influence us at all levels, from traffic delays to international trade. And the arguments for reform are significant, from abstract economic incentives to deeply personal safety incentives. Unfortunately, infrastructure reform may not occur without political reform. Four years after the political turmoil around the stimulus and in the middle of the current political turmoil of sequestration, no politician is ready to embrace the high costs necessary to repair our infrastructure by 2020, which the American Society of Civil Engineers puts at $3.6 trillion. The federal budget may set aside a few billion to develop certain initiatives, but nothing truly adequate to address the fundamental issue.
While we should push for infrastructure reforms throughout the developing world, then, we should also remember the need to push for infrastructure reforms here at home. A failure to address the situation could cost lives here as well.