Region Forward Blog

How to solve our regional and national infrastructure deficit? (Part 1)

Apr 23, 2012


In a globalized world falling behind on infrastructure means falling behind economically. That’s a point we’ve made before here on The Yardstick and it was one of the key messages repeated by leaders at a recent forum on the potential for infrastructure banks to help solve our regional and national infrastructure crisis.

Current methods of funding and financing infrastructure – such as stagnant fuel taxes and federal legislation held hostage to political impasse – are no longer doing the trick. And we don’t have the luxury of waiting for a magic bullet any longer. That’s why Our Nation’s Capital MWCOG the George Mason University School of Public Policy and other organizations sponsored the forum.

The infrastructure deficit

The draining effect that inadequate and insufficient transportation and environmental infrastructure has on economic productivity and competitiveness is overwhelming.

Jonathan Gifford Director of Research at GMU noted that the United States’ rate of spending on infrastructure – including transportation water energy and telecommunications infrastructure – is drastically below other parts of the world and below other developed nations (not just fast-growing places like China and Brazil).

Nationwide traffic congestion was estimated to cost about $100 billion in lost productivity in 2010 according to the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI). And that figure doesn’t even account for other detrimental effects such as the frayed nerves and environmental degradation that come from daily bumper to bumper commutes.

In 2010 metro DC was ranked the most congested region in the US by TTI. The average commuter spent 74 more hours on DC area roadways than they would have in free flow traffic conditions. Those additional hours sitting in traffic cost those commuters an average of $1500 each for the year.

As Ron Kirby Transportation Planning Director at MWCOG pointed out at the forum population growth over the next 30 years will be equivalent to adding the city of Philadelphia to our region. As a result rush hour congestion in this already gridlocked region is set to increase by 38 percent over the same time period.

It’s not just the roadways that are at-or-above capacity during rush hour. Kirby noted that five of six Metrorail lines (the Silver Line will be in operation by then) will be “congested” (100-120 people per car) or “highly congested” (more than 120) by 2040 without additional capacity expansion. As of now all lines except Orange are considered “satisfactory” (less than 100 people per car).

And our infrastructure deficit isn’t solely a transportation issue as George Hawkins the General Manager of DC Water made clear. Hawkins pointed out that while problems related to water infrastructure don’t typically garner as much attention as do problems with transportation they’re no less critical.

The effects of such problems like a water main break or busted sewer pipe are more easily isolatable than say a tractor-trailer crash on a major thoroughfare or heavy delays on the Red line at rush hour. However much of the region’s water infrastructure is extremely old (some elements were installed prior to the Civil War) and maintenance has been spotty at best. When Hawkins came on board at DC Water the rate of capital replacement was 1/3 of one percent per year meaning it would take 300 years to update the region’s water infrastructure. The DC Water Board of Directors’ new goal is to triple that rate to one percent a year and reducing the replacement cycle to 100 years. Getting rid of those extra 200 years isn’t cheap however.

This increased capital replacement along with decreasing federal funding for water infrastructure is why DC Water has to raise rates for consumers and will likely continue to have to do so for the foreseeable future. However Hawkins believes that modernizing the system (as opposed to constantly patching up old pipes) is worth the costs and he argues that a growing city and region like ours must recognize the value of the water infrastructure on which that growth relies.

This is part one of a two-part series. Part one highlights a few of the region’s infrastructure needs discussed at the forum and part two focuses on infrastructure banks as potential ways to help better address those needs.

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