21st Century Economies are Hamstrung by 20th Century Infrastructures

Scott Deshefy


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In eight years, this is probably my fourth column focused on America’s deteriorating infrastructure with little done nationally or statewide to address the ever-growing problem. Unsafe, outmoded electrical grids, dams, tunnels, bridges and highways need immediate attention. Congested airports, seaports, truncated internet and railway lines demand sweeping plans for modernization, expansion and hardenings against cyber-attacks. Leaking and overwhelmed sewer lines and drinking water mains poison our cities with lead and other contaminants. Still, denial and hyper-partisan deadlocks between major parties kick the infrastructure can down the road.

In 2016, Donald Trump pledged a $1 trillion national infrastructure program, delivering nothing. The Hudson River tunnels, which opened a century ago and service every Amtrak and NJ Transit passenger train between Penn Station and points west, were badly damaged by hurricane Sandy. Should either tunnel become impassable, economic impacts to NYC, Jersey and the rest of the nation would be staggering. Under President Obama, feds approved the Gateway Project, agreeing to split costs with states for two new tunnels, major repairs to originals and other bottleneck improvements. Trump’s administration reneged on the deal, failing to grasp what FDR and Eisenhower understood: upgrades to transportation and energy nexuses not only protect and improve lives, but create jobs and revitalize economies. Decades of infrastructure deferrals have only heightened costs of repairs, endangered travelers, damaged our vehicles, inflated insurance, and left many isolated and digitally wanting. We live in ever-widening shadows of antiquated irrigation, decrepit dams and levees, and energy networks susceptible to climate change and ransom-ware. State and local parks face billions of dollars in maintenance backlogs, and according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 7.5 % of our bridges are structurally deficient, 2,300 dams are hazardous from disrepair, and15 % of wastewater plants are exceeding design capacities. Air pollution, from failing to convert U.S. energy production from fossil fuels to green alternatives, kills an estimated 107,000 Americans each year with preventable respiratory diseases from PM2.5 particulates.

President Biden’s $2.1 trillion, 8-year proposal for improving America’s infrastructure and shifting to alternative green energy has an additional “employment rider” projected to create 2.3 million jobs by 2024, injecting $5.7 trillion into the U.S. economy by 2029. Biden initially proposed paying the infrastructure tab with a tax hike on businesses, bumping the corporate rate from its current 21 percent to 28 percent while dissolving international tax havens. Many progressives, I included, would prefer corporate taxes restored to 35 percent to assure funding for advancements in public works projects without burdening the middle class. If Biden’s plan isn’t implemented, however, U.S. families will continue losing $3,300/yr over the next 20 years due to externalities such as auto repairs, time lost in traffic, and outages and water shutoffs during storms, medical costs not inclusive. The bulk of spending ($621 billion) will go to 20,000 miles of highway improvements, public transport, waterways and electric vehicles, improving air quality, reducing congestion and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. $400 billion will support care-giving for the elderly and disabled. $300 billion will go to manufacturing; $213 billion to housing; $100 billion each to school renovations and universal access to reliable high-speed broadband.

21st century economies are hamstrung by 20th century infrastructures. Unless America closes its infrastructure gap, our $20 trillion economy (reliant on those networks) stands to lose $4 trillion in GDP revenues. It’s pay now or pay big time later.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.