About two centuries ago, American local, state and federal governments poured millions of dollars into building canals to move the nation’s people and goods. By 1840, there were 3,000 miles of canals in the United States. But, within 20 years, the rise of the railroads would make canals practically obsolete. In the 1840s, several U.S. states ended up defaulting on the loans they took to build canals and railroads.

The defaults are an example of what can happen when governments spend on infrastructure — because trying to guess the future can be like shooting at a moving target. 

“You try to foresee a future. You try to guess what you’re going to need 10, 20, 30 years down the line,” says Richard White, professor emeritus of American history at Stanford University in California. “It takes a long time to construct this kind of infrastructure. And secondly, you’re going to be paying for it in the future…so very often you can be paying for something you no longer need well into the future.” 

Yet, not spending on infrastructure can be costly. 

“If we continue to not invest, Americans — between now and 2039 —— will lose on average $3,300 per year in lost disposable income,” says Greg DiLoreto, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). “That’s money they’ll lose because they’re spending it on fixing their cars because it ran into a pothole, for example. That’s wasted gas stuck in traffic. Or, this past year where I live, we have the big freeze. People were investing in generators so they would have power. Or that’s when a water line breaks and you go out and you buy bottled water.” 

Every four years, the ASCE grades America’s Infrastructure. The assessment looks at several categories including energy, waste water, drinking water, aviation, roads, bridges, dams and rail. The 2021 Report Card gives the nation’s infrastructure a low C grade — essentially the lowest passing grade possible. 

President Joe Biden has made infrastructure funding a signature piece of his agenda. In August, the U.S. Senate passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan that focuses on transportation, utilities, including high-speed internet for rural communities, and pollution cleanup. The proposal, which would be the largest federal investment in infrastructure in more than a decade, must still pass in the House of Representatives. 

DiLoreto says it’s hard to prioritize one infrastructure category area over the other because they all hinge together. 

“You’ve got to have strong electric to have strong water and wastewater and broadband,” DiLoreto says. “You’ve got to have a strong road system if you’re going to feed your ports. You’ve got to have strong ports if you’re going to ship your goods and get your goods into this country. And, without the roads to support that, what happens when [goods] wind up on the ports and can’t go anywhere [because] congestion is a problem?” 

While it’s challenging to predict the future, White sees several places where infrastructure money would be wasted. That includes places like coastal Louisiana, the San Francisco Bay and large parts of Florida and the Atlantic coastline, which could be impacted by climate change and rising sea levels.

“Do we really want to build infrastructure in places where we’re no longer going to be able to inhabit?” White says. “Are we really going to want to build a huge amount of infrastructure to protect coastlines that we really cannot protect? Are we going to want to set up sewage systems that, in fact, will be overwhelmed by ocean rise? We have a whole series of things which are going to be controversial because people live there now and they’re going to want that infrastructure to protect them.” 

Another potentially unpopular move would be to refrain from spending money on more fire-prone areas of the country, primarily in the West. From January 1, 2021, through September 29, 2021, more than 46,000 wildfires burned through almost 2.4 million hectares of land across the United States.

“We should not be building up infrastructure that encourages people to move into places where these kinds of fires are going to ravage them, force them out, [and] we’re going to have to spend huge public resources trying to protect them,” White says. “It seems to me the writing’s on the wall. It’s not that hard to figure out, but none of these things are necessarily going to be particularly popular.” 

Local governments own most of the nation’s infrastructure, but any ambitious infrastructure plans require at least some federal funding. 

“There’s no question that all the spending increases happen because of bold elected officials, and elected officials are only bold when the people they represent tell them to be. So we need bold leadership to make this happen,” DiLoreto says. “We also need to design these projects both sustainably and to be resilient.” 

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