This indicator unpacks macro-statistics to reveal an ongoing debate: to what extent the USA has been overlooking the vital role its infrastructure plays in undergirding our economy. The August 2003 power blackout, as well as the terrorist attacks of 2001 revealed many inadequacies in our infrastructure and public services, from the security of airlines, airports and postal system to that of water and electricity supplies, bridges, dams and the state of our public health system. A new debate on the mix of US transportation has revived interest in rail systems and the relative subsidies to airlines and the need to balance our public investments between roads, rail and air transport. Growing media attention to sprawl has focused on the problems of relying on automobiles as the main mode of transport. This reliance leads to ever-larger communities, burgeoning suburbs, costly new highways and other infrastructure, while increasing taxes, pollution and inconvenience.
Historically, infrastructure referred to highways, railroads, harbors, bridges, aqueducts, public buildings, dams, and the like. As our industrial societies evolved, we added airports, communications systems, energy supplies, water, and other utilities. Today, we think of infrastructure as including education, research and development, computerized “backbone” systems, and all taxpayer-supported systems that we use in commerce and on which large sectors of our economy rely. A trend picked up by our indicator is the privatization of growing areas of our formerly publicly owned infrastructure, including electric utilities, phone, water, and other services. Such publicly-funded investments used to be “expensed” items in our GDP accounts. As of 1996, a more realistic asset budget in GNP now accounts for such investments as assets, i.e., “savings” since they often have a useful lifetime of 50 to 100 years or more. This accounting change contributed to the budget surpluses of the late 1990s, 2000 and 2001.
Another key infrastructure issue, triggered by the recent blackout and California’s energy problems is privatization and the extent to which this leaves electricity transmission lines “orphaned” and obsolete. Either these nationwide grids will have to be linked into a more efficient, coherent system (requiring enormous public and private investment), or power consumers will continue to move off the grid with on-site generation. This trend to decentralized electrical power is accelerating as fuel cells are offering more efficient on-site generation and centralized electric utilities see their future more as power “bundlers” and distributors rather than running huge generating facilities – a scenario I foretold in Planning Review, May 1974. Water is another serious issue as well as its security, as even more users add pollution and compete for finite supplies. In some areas ground water is being pumped at twice the rate that rainfall can re-charge underground aquifers.
The Infrastructure Indicator is related to most other indicators, as infrastructure is the key to energy-efficiency, whether our cities sprawl over virgin lands and farms, or whether we infill older or vacant land in our cities. These factors, in turn, relate to environmental protection, pollution, housing, education, public health, and safety.