Deterioration of the nation's roads and bridges will not wait for passage of a transportation bill. Without federal funding, state and local governments will be hard-pressed to address needed repairs and expansion of infrastructure.
Photo: Roger Kemp Deterioration of the nation's roads and bridges will not wait for passage of a transportation bill. Without federal funding, state and local governments will be hard-pressed to address needed repairs and expansion of infrastructure.

All levels of government in the United States are facing a new era of capital financing and infrastructure management. In recent years, many revenue sources have diminished while others have evaporated entirely. At the same time, fiscal demands for public services have increased to unprecedented levels. Throughout the nation, deficits loom ominously on the horizon; the federal deficit is at an all-time high. And some experts believe these negative fiscal circumstances are likely to continue for many years to come.

Congested highways, overflowing sewers, and corroding bridges are constant reminders of the looming crisis that jeopardizes our nation's prosperity and the quality of life for our citizens. The American Society of Civil Engineers released the 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure based on a review of the nation's infrastructure. Their findings indicate a system that has shown little to no improvement since receiving a collective grade of D+ in 2001.

In short, the study reports that U.S. roads, bridges, sewers, and dams are crumbling and need a $1.6 trillion overhaul, but prospects for improvement are grim. The nation's drinking water system alone needs a public investment of $11 billion a year to replace facilities and comply with regulations to meet our future drinking-water needs.

The improvement and maintenance of our nation's public infrastructure, at all levels of government, is critically linked to economic development. Economic development programs provide additional private-sector investment, bring much-needed jobs to the local economy, and generate additional tax revenues to fund future public services. Adequate infrastructure makes a city, county, state, and nation more desirable from an economic perspective.

If public officials continue to let critical infrastructure issues go unresolved, the next generation of political leaders will either have to raise taxes to repair and maintain their government's respective portion of the infrastructure or be forced to close many public facilities due to disrepair, deterioration, or decay. Major portions of our public infrastructure will become unsafe for the public to use. Economic development programs also will diminish, creating lost opportunities for private-sector investment, related jobs, and much-needed revenue that could be used to maintain essential public services.

While expert opinion points to general agreement on the magnitude and complexity of this problem, little agreement exists on how to achieve a comprehensive, nationwide solution to restoring and maintaining America's public infrastructure. Aside from this lack of consensus, one point seems clear: the necessary leadership and policy direction required to properly address this national issue must come from the highest level of government. Local and state governments—with diverse policies, multiple budget demands, and varied fiscal constraints—cannot be relied upon to achieve a comprehensive solution without federal assistance. Only within a national policy framework can states, counties, and cities work together to improve the current condition of our public works facilities.

Unfortunately, the current philosophy of our national government has been to let the lower levels of government solve their own problems, regardless of their complexity or the magnitude of funds needed. The political posture of our national government needs to become more positive and proactive if a solution is to be forthcoming. For these reasons, assertive leadership is needed from the federal government to make difficult policy decisions and approve the funding requirements necessary to solve our country's infrastructure problem.

As the severity of this issue escalates and citizens become more aware of the increased costs of postponing a major investment in infrastructure, taxpayers may be more willing to become politically involved in the solution. However, cities, counties, and states have relative degrees of wealth based on their taxing capacity, bonding levels and ratings, and budgetary reserves. Because of this, many lower levels of government do not have the financial capability, even with increased taxation, to adequately address the issues related to restoring and maintaining America's infrastructure. A major redirection of federal government funds will be required for a truly comprehensive and coordinated nationwide response.

Even with additional taxes and user fees, funding will remain limited. Those who deal with infrastructure issues argue that national priorities must be established for the replacement and restoration of capital facilities throughout the nation, starting with those projects that are necessary to ensure the public's security, health, and safety. Funds and grant monies from the federal government must be redirected from programs with limited or special-interest constituencies, to those projects with a higher national priority.

Our nation is not “on the road to ruin,” as some experts explain, but merely going through the transition period required to properly sort out and arrive at a politically acceptable, long-term solution to this critical and complex policy issue that plagues all levels of government. If our nation's infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate further, possibly to the point of decay, the cost of resolving this issue will escalate significantly. If this happens, economic development programs also will continue to suffer, and the revenues they could generate will not be available to assist in restoring our public infrastructure.

Roger Kemp is the city manager of Vallejo, Calif.