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Updating our national infrastructure is one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on. We benefit as a country with modern roads, wires and pipes that keep us connected. Why is infrastructure such an agreeable topic, and how should we tackle it?
The concept of infrastructure is wide-ranging. Generally, in this publication, we talk about the direct influence we have on the water infrastructure. In this article, I’ll talk about topics not related to piping, because non-water-related topics affect our bottom lines. For plumbing and heating professionals, one of the key pieces of your profitability puzzle — delivery of parts and services — depends on road quality.
Have you ever ordered a part overnight to wrap up a job that was waiting on you? Did that part take longer than expected? There are a million reasons that could be the case, but transportation delays are high on the list. Chances are, a lot of you have lost many potentially profitable hours of your life waiting for a delivery truck that was stuck in traffic.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. roads infrastructure a D grade in a 2017 report: “More than two out of every five miles of America’s urban interstates are congested and traffic delays cost the country $160 billion in wasted time and fuel in 2014.” They continue: “In 2016 alone, U.S. roads carried people and goods over three trillion miles — or more than 300 roundtrips between Earth and Pluto. After a slight dip during the 2008 recession, Americans are driving more, and vehicle miles travelled is at its second highest-ever level, second only to 2007.”
How can we fix the congestion problem so your deliveries won’t keep getting stuck in traffic? All of the potential solutions listed by the ASCE report amount to taxpayers paying more. We could tax heavy road users with additional gasoline and diesel taxes, or expand toll roads, which would eventually increase your shipping costs. We could spread the road construction cost across the whole tax base by better allocating the current IRS revenue to transportation issues, at the expense of other programs. We could also go with a good old-fashioned tax hike.
Have you ever damaged your car or truck by hitting a pothole or poorly maintained stretch of the road? You are out the time to fix it, the cost of the repairs, and the rescheduling labor when the truck is down. Plus, if the road has been neglected for a long time, you haven’t even started to see the big price tag. You and your neighbors may be getting a bigger tax bill to fix that problem area. According to a representative of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, “a mile of a decently maintained road costs $50,000 to repave; but a mile of deteriorated road costs $1 million to reconstruct.”
To recap, if we fix the roads, it will cost taxpayers. If we avoid fixing the roads now, we may pay much more to rebuild them, and we also increase risk of vehicle damage. Overall, the issue may be that we expect A+ quality roads, but traditionally treat them as D+ priorities. While every day we become more reliant on two-day deliveries to keep us on track, we also get more frustrated when we are stuck behind a line of delivery trucks carrying those same boxes to our homes or offices.
Where are we headed with our federal transportation infrastructure? President Trump signed an executive order in anticipation of the infrastructure week in mid-August. The order states: “America needs increased infrastructure investment to strengthen our economy, enhance our competitiveness in world trade, create jobs and increase wages for our workers, and reduce the costs of goods and services for our families. The poor condition of America’s infrastructure has been estimated to cost a typical American household thousands of dollars each year.”
A portion of the executive order aims to streamline some of the permitting processes associated with infrastructure projects but would require Congress to write checks for, or to incentivize, actual construction projects. The Union of Concerned Scientists worry, “Trump’s executive order will make America flood again.” Some of the streamlined policy revokes the federal requirement to build above expected flood lines.
At the local level, your government may or may not require building above a 100-year-flood line. The UoCS article continues: “Californians recently spent $6.4 billion on the new Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco to Oakland. The bridge opened in September of 2013. Fourteen months later, the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission released a report funded, in part, by the U.S. Department of Transportation, finding that with three feet of sea level rise, the eastern approach to the bridge would be permanently inundated.” Oops.
What is a 100-year-flood line? A 100-year flood means that that there is a 1 in 100 chance an area will flood to a certain level in one year, based on historical averages. This level is not a fixed number. The Washington Post reports that the Houston area has experienced three 500-year floods (0.2 percent chance of happening in a year) in the last three years. Overall, the U.S. has experienced 25 different 500-year rain events in the last seven years. Each big storm lowers the average per area, so a 100-year flood in 1980 may be a 20-year flood in 2018.
Vox.com found that city and state officials in Houston acknowledged that the city wasn’t prepared for even a 15-year storm. Additionally, more than 7,000 Houston-area homes have been built below the 100-year flood line since 2010. The infrastructure was drastically behind the building boom, and now the citizens will have a painful and expensive recovery to rebuild their infrastructure and get back to solid footing.
Wherever you live, likely in the paper today, there is some transportation project your state or local government is working on. Lifting a bridge an extra five feet after it is built isn’t easy. You will be paying for roads, directly or indirectly, for the rest of your life. Don’t let the infrastructure decision-makers waste your time or money; keep an eye on your local transportation projects.
What is the financial upside of all this infrastructure work? The ASCE report continues: “The Federal Highway Administration estimates that each dollar spent on road, highway, and bridge improvements returns $5.20 in the form of lower vehicle maintenance costs, decreased delays, reduced fuel consumption, improved safety, lower road and bridge maintenance costs, and reduced emissions as a result of improved traffic flow.”
A March 2017 poll conducted by CNN/ORC found that 79 percent of respondents approve of increased spending on infrastructure. One hundred percent of us rely, directly or indirectly, on roads. Regardless of your politics concerning the fairest way to pay for upgrading our infrastructure, we will all benefit from smooth, well-maintained highways. Make sure you are in the know, and have your voice heard about local infrastructure projects. Nobody wants to see a shiny new bridge under water. Also, find out where the 100-year flood line is before you build your next home below it.