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The Great Regression of America's Infrastructure

Potholes in road
Bloomberg | Getty Images
Potholes in road

America is in the midst of physical decline. Decades of infrastructure neglect are eroding centuries of economic progress.

Call it: The Great Regression.

We the people came of age as our ancestors bumped westward down the National Road. The Erie Canal fed our hungry forefathers by making precious commodities from the Midwestern breadbasket affordable. The Transcontinental Railroad realized bicoastal resources. Starving brothers and sisters on the farm during the Great Depression found salvation along Route 66 while en route to the Land of Milk & Honey. Finally, the nation modernized down the superhighway called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. A half-century later, we’re lost without a plan forward, without a vision – without a visionary.

The United States is rich because of its infrastructure. It’s not as if the country decided to go on an infrastructural spending spree once it became wealthy. We built ourselves up one turnpike, one waterworks and one rail line at a time. As our physical improvements begot physical improvements, the nation prospered. As the nation’s coffers filled, so too did those of our forbearers.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” prophesied President John F. Kennedy while delivering a speech in Colorado. The 1963 Presidential groundbreaking of a water diversion project included: five dams, eight mountain tunnels, and a series of power plants. That infrastructure spawned growth that provided unprecedented prosperity for the Centennial State. Infrastructure matters.

We’re the world’s greatest testament to the democratic process. When it comes to nation building, that’s good and bad. The US is going to do what we do best: exhaust every possible solution before setting upon a corrective course. We’ll resolve this crisis as we have each one before it.

But, the big questions remain unanswered: How to do it? What’s the cost going to be? How long will it take to end the demise? In the meantime, the country regresses as other nations progress. If in doubt, ask The Commander-in-Chief, “We used to have the best stuff: best roads, best airports, best seaports…We’re slipping behind, “said President Obama during his recent “jobs” speech.

Today we invest half of what we used to when President Eisenhower was in power. Our standing in the world of infrastructure has declined from a stacked rank of sixth to sixteen. Overall, South Korea eclipsed us, Malaysia’s roads are better than ours. Hong Kong rules. Maintenance of our structures and systems is being put off to the point of criminality. Increasing traffic and rising utility consumption is breaking down the nation’s once great public works.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is most aware of our downfall. They’ve been tracking it for decades. Engineers are the stewards of our built-environment. They’re the professionals, the master degree holders, and the PhDs most concerned about the health of super-and-not-so-super-structures. ASCE has taken it upon themselves to give the nation a letter grade for its overall infrastructure performance. The Grade Point Average for America’s power-grid, its airports, roads, bridges, light-rail, heavy-rail, waterways, dams, levees, drinking water systems, sewer plants, solid waste, hazardous waste, parks and schools is a “D.” We’re flunking.

"Our standing in the world of infrastructure has declined from a stacked rank of sixth to sixteen."" -Author, Dan McNichol

America’s supply-chain, its industrial output, its status as a market with a future is being eclipsed. The United States of Europe and the Asian tiger nations are constructing cleaner power plants, faster transportation systems and superior educational facilities. The US should have started rebuilding years ago. It took twenty-years to dig the Big Dig. It took ten years for construction crews at The World Trade Center to climb out of “The Hole” in order to reach the sidewalk in Lower Manhattan. Chinese Fung Wah buses servicing New York City and Boston are capable of better running times than the nations only “high-speed” train Acela, running along the same route. Meanwhile, equivalent travel times in China are easily 400% faster in China.

We have what it takes: wealth, natural resources and brilliant minds with readied answers. If the rebuilding begins we rise above the crisis. If not, The Great Regression continues along with the demise of our infrastructure.

Dan McNichol an award-winning journalist and a number one best selling author. Among the books he has written are, "The Roads That Built America" and "Asphalt in America." The University of Pennsylvania Press published McNichol’s work in a new book titled, A Legacy of Leadership. Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush have praised the book for its contribution to educating the nation about the challenges of gubernatorial politics. McNichol served as a White House Appointee to the United States Department of Transportation under Secretary Andrew Card. You can learn more about him on his website.

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