According to a recent U.S. government report, America spends roughly 2 percent of GDP on infrastructure, about half what it did 50 years ago. Europe spends around 5 percent and China 9 percent.
Reuters claims the United States has fallen sharply in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of national infrastructure systems. In the forum’s 2007-2008 report, American infrastructure was ranked 6th best in the world.
The 2011-2012 report will show America at No. 16, with South Korea overtaking the United States during the last year, according to a copy of the rankings obtained by Reuters. A 2010 GAO report found that one in four bridges in the country is either “structurally deficient” and in need of repair or functionally obsolete.
What we hear less about is the worn and broken down pipe infrastructure that transports one of our most precious resources: drinking water.
A report by the American Water Works Association warns much of our drinking water infrastructure, the more than one million miles of pipes beneath our streets, is nearing the end of its life and needs to be replaced.
The [pdf] report, “Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge”, claims the cost for rebuilding buried drinking water infrastructure total more than $1 trillion nationwide over the next 25 years, assuming pipes are replaced at the end of their service lives and systems are expanded to serve growing populations.
The report warns the level of investment required to replace worn-out pipes and maintain current levels of water service in the most affected communities could triple household water bills.
The growing national need affects different regions in different ways. In general, the report claims the South and the West will face the steepest investment challenges, with total needs accounting for considerably more than half the national total.
The report notes this is attributable to the rapidly growing population of these regions. In contrast, in the Northeast and Midwest, growth is a relatively small component of the projected need.
But the report advises that the population shifts away from these regions complicate the infrastructure challenge, as there are fewer remaining local customers across whom to spread the cost of renewing their infrastructure.
Small communities may find a steeper challenge ahead on water infrastructure because they have fewer people, and those people are often more spread out, requiring more pipe “miles per customer” than larger systems. In the largest water systems, costs can be spread over a large population base.
Overlooking or postponing infrastructure renewal investments in the near term will only add to the scale of the challenge, and increases the odds of facing the high costs associated with water main breaks and other infrastructure failures.
Aging water mains are subject to more frequent breaks and other failures that can threaten public health and safety, such as compromising tap water quality.
The report emphasizes that these impairments weaken the economy and undermine our quality of life. As large as the cost of reinvestment may be, not undertaking it will be worse in the long run by almost any standard.