An Age of Aging Infrastructure

While planners, developers and policy makers understand how important the nation’s infrastructure is to our stability and sustainability, it is probably not a common discussion topic in many circles.   However, some argue that our nation is becoming characterized as one plagued by an aging infrastructure. This issue is a highly challenging and costly one to address. The result of decades of underinvestment, it is slowly creeping to a head at a time when governmental bodies everywhere are tightening their budgets.

A recent report published by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), titled “Infrastructure 2010: Investment Imperative,” addresses this issue on a national scale.  The report – which can be downloaded here – indicates that the nation is in a bind when it comes to infrastructure needs and capacity. The Unites States falls behind global competitors in this arena, and struggles to gain traction in planning and building the critical infrastructure investments that support a rapidly expanding population, while also ensuring future economic growth.  A large-scale solution is needed.

So how did we get here? For one, land use patterns coupled with a growing population have resulted in a widely car-dependent society, making expensive road maintenance and upkeep inevitable. And with the country’s population anticipated to increase by 120 million over the next 40 years, expanded highways and new roads cannot be the only solution. We cannot build our way out of traffic congestion – multi-modal options will be imperative.  

 And while Atlanta is in the middle of a comprehensive water and sewer system revamp, many aging systems were laid long ago and are in need of an overhaul as their life cycle nears an end. 

 Water supply is dwindling as population is expanding, a situation that hits especially close to home in this region.

 And while higher driver expenditures shift the cost equation in favor of living closer to work, most metropolitan areas have proven unable to provide affordable in-town housing choices within proximity to job centers.

 In sum, the majority of the nation’s infrastructure was built when only a fraction of its current population existed – a population that is expected to grow by 30 million people per decade between now and 2050. And the Atlanta region is no different.  Our region is expected to grow by another three million residents by 2040, and already a significant portion of the region’s roads are in major need of repairs, maintenance and resurfacing. But, as these needed repairs are backlogging, transportation dollars are dwindling.

 These compounding factors are resulting in an era where citizens think differently about where they choose to live, and policy makers think twice about where development is targeted and approved. Every spectrum of government, from local jurisdictions  to federal employees, recognizes that resources are scarce and must be spent tactically and wisely. Gone are the days of overly excessive standards of living and new construction at any costs, gradually being replaced by a day when all citizens are aware of the costs of their lifestyle choices – to not only themselves, but their region and nation as well. 

Moving forward, growth must be accommodated near existing infrastructure.  Programs such as ARC’s Livable Centers Initiative (LCI), which encourages local jurisdictions to plan and implement strategies that link transportation improvements with land use development strategies in order to better leverage existing infrastructure, is one such program that encourages the rejuvenation and implementation of these sustainable, livable communities.  If thoughtfully planned and implemented, suburban town centers with existing infrastructure investments can become multifaceted 24-hour inclusive communities, comprised of multi-family residential, retail, office space and recreational places.

The increased expense of commuting long distances to work, has reinvigorated the case for expanded and improved transit systems. While incurring long and costly commutes in exchange for less expensive housing prices has traditionally been the trend for Atlanta, rising energy costs and amplified traffic congestion have proven it to be unsustainable and unaffordable. Moving forward, transit oriented developments (TOD) can provide relief from automobile-dependent lifestyles, providing a fundamental way to lift pressure off overcrowded interstates and roadways. These developments not only reduce a family’s transportation costs, but should also provide housing options affordable to a wide array of incomes. 

While we can recognize that the benefits outweigh the costs of these lifestyle shifts, leaders are being faced with the challenge of affording these necessary large-scale infrastructure improvements.  ULI’s report asserts that government officials seem to resist leveling with Americans about the “true costs” of infrastructure and have trouble framing infrastructure programs as investments to ensure future economic growth.

But this is exactly how it should be framed. It is up to all of the region’s leaders to educate the public about the consequences of underfunding infrastructure. Atlanta requires investments in its infrastructure to ensure future economic prosperity – this is a common message behind which all leaders should be able to unite.

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