The Infrastructure of America's Cities

By Kemp, Roger L. | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Infrastructure of America's Cities

Kemp, Roger L., Contemporary Review

Editor's Note: There has been increasing debate in Britain about the physical condition of most large cities. The election in May of a Tory, Boris Johnson, as Mayor of London has led to much speculation about ways to improve it and other cities. It is helpful to have some international perspective on such topics. In this article, a highly experienced expert on American cities describes the declining state of the urban infrastructure in the United States.

THE term 'infrastructure' refers to the basic facilities and installations necessary for cities to function in our society. These include transportation and communication systems (e.g., highways, airports, bridges, telephone lines, cellular telephone towers, post offices, etc.); educational and health facilities, water, gas, and electrical systems (e.g., dams, power lines, power plants, aqueducts, etc.); and miscellaneous facilities (e.g., prisons, asylums, national park structures), and other improvements to real property owned by government. In the United States, the infrastructure is divided into private and public sectors. In the latter case, divided again between facilities owned by municipal, county, state, and federal governments, as well as many special district authorities such as the Port Authority of New York and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, to name a few.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the only professional membership organization in the nation that has graded the country's public infrastructure, there are fifteen major categories of government infrastructure. These infrastructure categories include:

  Aviation; Bridges; Dams; Drinking Water; Energy; Hazardous Waste;
  Navigable Waterways; Parks and Recreation; Rail; Roads; Schools;
  Security; Solid Waste; Transit; Wastewater.

All levels of government in the US are facing a new era of capital financing and infrastructure management, now made all the worse by the 'credit crunch' and the rising cost of oil. Revenues that once were available for capital construction, restoration, and maintenance, have either diminished or evaporated entirely in recent years. Portions of the public infrastructure that were once adequate are now experiencing signs of distress, even decay, with no end in sight to the ongoing deterioration of America's ageing infrastructure.

Local and state, as well as the federal government, are now subjected to unprecedented fiscal demands for public services in an environment of limited taxation and dwindling financial resources. Throughout the nation, many state government deficits loom ominously on the horizon. At the same time, the federal deficit is at an all-time high, exacerbated by the fact that the US is financing two wars. These negative fiscal circumstances, experts believe, are likely to continue for many years to come.

Congested highways, overflowing sewers, and corroding bridges are constant reminders of the pending crisis that jeopardizes our nation's prosperity and the quality of life for our citizens. The August 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota is only an example of this trend. With new grades for the first time since 2001, the condition of our nation's infrastructure has shown little to no improvement since receiving a collective grade of C-in 1988, with some areas sliding downward toward failing grades. The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure (see Note below) assesses the same categories as it did in its previous survey. The grade comparison of America's infrastructure between the ASCE's most recent 2005 survey and its original survey in 1988 are highlighted below.

Aviation-Received a grade of B--in 1988 and a grade of D+ in 2005.

Bridges-Received a grade of C+ in 1988 and a grade of C in 2005.

Dams-While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D in 2005.

Drinking Water-Received a grade of B--in 1988 and a grade of D--in 2005.

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