This was a bad week for American infrastructure. A 40 year-old condo tower collapsed in North Miami Beach, leaving at least 60 dead and many still unaccounted for. In Detroit, heavy rain swept through the city, prompting 2,800 calls in 24 hours for widespread flooding. America’s aging infrastructure is now undeniable, and it will require a Rooseveltian-esque project to redeem it.
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The scoop: American infrastructure is aging and the problem is two-fold. Large cities need federal funding to support ambitious projects, while small cities can’t afford any new projects.
Disaster in Miami, Detroit: As the story unfolds, it appears the Surfside condo tower likely collapsed from deteriorating infrastructure. In the Midwest, Detroit suffered from unprecedented rain, but also decades of underinvestment.
Rising cost of construction: US infrastructure rebuilds are extremely expensive, 6th highest in the world. Despite that, we dedicate a lower percentage of our GDP to infrastructure than the EU or China.
One solution: Prioritize domestic infrastructure projects over foreign interventionism to fund new projects. Don’t just use deficit money to fund it. In fact, money alone will not be sufficient to ensure new construction is a success.
Successful federal projects require careful planning, strategic management and people-first politics. America needs to rebuild itself bearing both today’s economy and future economies in mind. It’s important we don’t forget either.
Dig deeper → 4 min
Back in 2019, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave US infrastructure a D+. They dubbed our levels of investment “woefully inadequate.”
That same year, infrastructure was also one of a short list of topics that bicameral Congress agreed on.
Both parties acknowledged a $2 trillion price tag was necessary over a 25 year period. They just couldn’t decide how to fund it. Since then, America (and the world) caught itself in a different type of crisis spending. COVID temporarily dampened any hopes for a mass rebuild in America.
Here we are, two years later, and very little has happened. The US government needs to re-prioritize its infrastructure plans.
Detroit’s flawed water system
Governor Gretchen Whitmer blamed ‘decades of underinvestment’ on major flooding in Detroit. At first glance, it sounds like another tight budget governor making their case for federal assistance. But take a closer look, she has a point.
Detroit’s 3,000 miles of sewer lines and 2,700 miles of water lines were built a century ago; this is a common theme for eastern American cities. In that timeframe, $1.5 billion has been spent on retention basins and other safeguards designed to prevent flooding, according to Detroit News.
Despite these mitigation efforts, in 2018 Michigan’s Department of Transportation reported over 50% of Metro Detroit pump stations in poor condition. Despite warning signs, spending on pump station maintenance remained stagnant at ~ $2.8 million in 2020.
It’s important to note how parts of Detroit saw as much as 7 inches of rain in 12 hours. That’s two months worth of rain in normal parts of the year! So yes, severe weather conditions played a large role.
But if governments and corporations are tuned in to climate risk like their ads say, we need to initiate and expedite infrastructure projects beyond maintenance and toward renovation and development.
Miami’s infrastructure is aging
The world is mourning last week’s tragedy in Surfside Miami. And as the story develops, it looks like it was preventable. A pool contractor took these photos of the Champlain Towers South condo just 36 hours before its collapse.
The 40 year-old building looked fine on the outside, but the basement-level garage was falling apart from water damage. Sure, this was an unprecedented disaster. But aging infrastructure in South Florida is nothing new.
Back in January 2020, Fort Lauderdale battled the largest sewage break in South Florida history. In December that same year, local residents blamed old infrastructure for a similar water break in Miami.
Sure, we may not see another tall building just crumble out of the sky any time soon. But the message is clear: America’s infrastructure is aging, and American cities are getting old.
Rebuilding infrastructure in America
The problem is twofold: big cities need federal funding for ambitious projects that fuel the global economy, while small cities can’t afford any projects at all.
Small cities in the Northeast and Midwest also need federal funding. They need to boost aging bridges, tunnels, roadways, and water systems that haven’t been touched in decades.
Most concerningly, younger municipalities in the South and West are seeing similar signs. These mid-tier cities cannot afford to fix mounting issues like water breaks while juggling increased deficit spending.
What can the US do?
Researchers at Rice note how only 2.4 percent of America’s gross domestic product is applied to infrastructure, in comparison with 5 percent in the European Union and 9 percent in China.
What happens when a large city like New York is granted $11 billion in federal funding for a rail tunnel project?
Brooklyn activists are still calling for infrastructure investment to improve transit and air quality. There’s just not enough money to go around the country. And to cap it off, interstate construction costs have quadrupled over the last fifty years.
Construction was expensive before material prices soared. Now you can imagine how long it will take to drive costs down. Whatever the reason, the United States ranks sixth in the world for rail transit infrastructure costs.
Of the top 7 nations with high building costs, we are the only nation with under 50% of rail projects tunneled.
How do we fund this through deficit spending alone?
America’s aging infrastructure needs more than just money to redeem itself. It needs better politicians, and smarter management.