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Infrastructure’s long economic shadow

February 6, 2013

The topic of our country’s aging infrastructure may seem far removed from our everyday lives, until some lifeline in our own backyard, like the Narrowsburg Bridge or the Skinners Falls Bridge, makes the list of decaying structures in need of emergency repair. In fact, emergency repair is only part of the story.

The news this week that the Narrowsburg Bridge has a new, lower weight limit for safety reasons and will become a one-lane span (at first temporarily and then for years to come until permanent repairs can be made) brings with it questions about what impact this may have on our Upper Delaware communities.

From the river’s headwaters to the mouth of the Delaware Bay, the Delaware River Basin is a driver of economic activity. Its natural capital of forests and farmland, open water and open spaces is valued at more than $10 billion.* This wealth in turn helps generate jobs. In New York State and Pennsylvania alone (not counting New Jersey and Delaware), jobs directly associated with the river basin total more than 160,000 earning $3.3 billion in wages, and jobs indirectly associated with the river basin total more than 194,000 earning $2.6 billion. The river basin has not even reached its full potential for economic growth, but failing infrastructure undermines the possibilities.

For years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been warning that failures of key structures are becoming more frequent. In 2009, the society gave a “C” to the state of repair of U.S. bridges, and a “D-minus” to the soundness of our roads.

Now, the ASCE has just released a brand new study that examines what deteriorating infrastructure means for America’s economic future. The study, entitled “Failure to Act,” concluded, “The results show that deteriorating infrastructure, long known to be a public safety issue, has a cascading impact on the nation’s economy, negatively affecting business productivity, gross domestic product, employment, personal income and international competitiveness.”

The report looked at infrastructure deficiencies for transportation, water services, energy and electricity, marine ports and airports, and inland waterways. Among its conclusions was this: “By 2020, America’s projected surface transportation infrastructure deficiencies are expected to cost the national economy cumulatively almost $900 billion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), rising to $2.7 trillion through 2040.” Further, “by 2020, the economy is expected to lose almost 3.5 million jobs, and mounting impacts from underinvestment in infrastructure will result in nearly seven million jobs lost by 2040.”