Opinion: Our infrastructure clock keeps ticking

By John Hiltz

Any homeowner or car owner knows the hazards of delaying needed repairs or maintenance. Over time, we lose the full function and enjoyment of these important possessions.

Moreover, when the bill to make things right comes due, it has often grown immensely in dollars and degree of difficulty to repair. When it comes to the water we draw from our taps or driving over roads and bridges, the societal stakes are immense with respect to the safety of our family and loved ones, the economic health of our local communities and the long term competitiveness of our country.

As many have noted recently, the water crisis in Flint was a wakeup call as to the challenges that we face to fix our aging infrastructure. In fact, American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will take $4.6 trillion over the next decade to fix our infrastructure in the United States and has given America’s infrastructure a grade of D+.  However, the infrastructure plan presented to Congress earlier this year has allocated only $200 billion over 10 years in federal funds. This is a huge funding shortfall and there is no relief in sight from the federal government, leaving fiscal the challenge of fixing these problems solely to the state and local level.

The water crisis in Flint was a wakeup call as to the challenges that we face to fix our aging infrastructure, the author writes.

How did we get here?

In many respects, our national post World War-II growth and suburbanization has caught up with us, leaving us with more infrastructure to maintain than ever before.  Across the Midwest, the acreage of developed land between 1982-2012 increased by 41 percent, while population increased by just less than 14 percent. During this robust development period, the developers that built these new housing developments, shopping centers or industrial parks also heavily contributed to the costs of new roads, sewers and water mains. So we now have a much larger infrastructure footprint to maintain per capita, and as this infrastructure ages and needs repair, sufficient funds are no longer there.

Moreover, much of our infrastructure across the Midwest in and around our larger cities is 80-100 years old, and it is reaching the end of its useful life.  Unfortunately, with our water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure that is all beneath the ground, the problem is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. But the evidence of ailing infrastructure is abundant: sinkholes, unsafe water, sewerage overflows, potholes and bridge failures. 


In past decades, the federal government was a strong partner to local and state governments in funding infrastructure projects. However, that funding source has decreased significantly. As a percent of GDP, the federal government now spends roughly half of what it did 35 years ago on infrastructure.


In addition, as communities neglect their needed infrastructure repairs, they may see residents and businesses relocate, pushing down property values and leaving those communities with a smaller tax base. While funding infrastructure fixes is a tough reality for state and local governments to face given their limited budgets, it’s critical that local governments start to tackle this head-on.

What are local governments to do?

It is not an easy or convenient undertaking, but communities are not powerless to improve the scenario just outlined. First, it will take a coordinated and concerted effort around educating decision makers and citizens about the importance of fixing aging infrastructure, how to make it a priority and the options around funding. Failure to invest in infrastructure – the foundation of strong, healthy communities – means failure to sustain and develop our communities toward future success. We all have a stake in it.

Secondly, communities and their citizens will need to have difficult conversations around paying for these fixes, which may involve raising user fees or taxes or choosing to shift money away from other initiatives. Unfortunately, many politicians are often attacked for even proposing rate or tax increases, even though the projects being discussed are vitally important to the well being of their citizens. But just as we’re open to rate or tax increases to fund our schools, libraries and police, fire and EMT response –we all must realize that sound, safe infrastructure is just as critical for our communities.

John Hiltz is president of OHM Advisors.