A Democratic President taking office in January 2021 will face a record $1.034 trillion budget deficit. While this issue was overlooked by debate moderators during the 2019 debates, also overlooked was the fact that the new President will face a $2 trillion-dollar infrastructure funding gap. While it may not be as sexy as some of the other issues raised during the debates, how the new President will navigate the budget deficit, the infrastructure deficit and address their agenda is something which Democratic voters need to hear.
The United States has seen two major surges in infrastructure spending in the last century. The first came during the depression as public works measures such as building roads, bridges and schools were advanced to put the country back to work. The second came after World War II, as President Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system as a necessity for both a growing national economy and being able to mobilize and transport troops across the country.
As our nation has grown and infrastructure has aged, spending has not kept pace. The latest American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card gives the nation a "D" or less (which means poor to fair condition with a strong risk of failure) in the areas of aviation, dams, drinking water, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, roads, schools, wastewater and transit. The ASCE estimates that there is a $2 trillion gap between what has been budgeted and the spending required to address urgent infrastructure needs through 2025.
Failing infrastructure can have fatal consequences as we have seen with the collapse of the levees in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, the collapse of the I-35 Bridge in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Flint's current five-year battle with lead in its drinking water. These are not isolated instances, as, for example, Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Providence, Rhode Island are among the cities that currently have lead in their water supply above action levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
This should be relevant to voters in Iowa which is first in the nation with the number of structurally deficient bridges or in New Hampshire where the average age of its dams is 92 years old or South Carolina where 18 percent of the roads are in poor condition.
Our declining infrastructure is also a drag on our economy. ASCE estimates that if this deficit is not addressed, the economy will lose almost $4 trillion in GDP and 2.5 million jobs by 2025. In addition, our failing infrastructure costs consumers $3,400 per year in added costs plus a lower quality of life as they waste hours stuck on congested freeways or at aging airports.
President Trump campaigned on being a builder and pledged to invest in repairing our infrastructure, but has only cut funding further. After tentatively agreeing with House Democrats on a $2 trillion infrastructure plan earlier this year, Trump walked out of the next meeting on the plan because of House investigations and has taken no steps to revive the proposal.
Tackling the infrastructure deficit is not only a matter of urgency, but it also makes economic sense. A Moody's analysis found that every dollar spent on infrastructure yields $1.40 in economic output in subsequent years.
While it is important that primary voters understand each candidate's agenda on health care, education and other priorities, that discussion must not be divorced from the economic and fiscal realities that a new President will face. That is why the debate moderators and the media must force the candidates to specifically address how they will pursue their agendas within the context of addressing both the pressing budget and infrastructure deficits.
(Article changed on December 30, 2019 at 01:43)