Infrastructure is a term architects, engineers, and urban planners use to describe essential facilities, services, and organizational structures for communal use, most commonly by residents of cities and towns. Politicians often think of infrastructure in terms of how a nation can help corporations move and deliver their goods-water, electricity, sewage, and merchandise are all about movement and delivery via infrastructure.
Infra- means below, and sometimes these elements are literally below the ground, like water and natural gas supply systems. In modern environments, infrastructure is thought to be any facility we expect but don't think about because it works for us in the background, unnoticed-below our radar. The global information infrastructure for communications and internet involves satellites in space-not underground at all, but we rarely think about how that last Tweet got to us so quickly.
Infrastructure is not American or exclusive to the United States. For example, engineers in nations across the globe have developed high-tech solutions for flood control-one system that protects an entire community.
All countries have infrastructure in some form, which can include these systems:
- Roads, tunnels, and bridges, including the Interstate Highway System
- Mass-transit systems (e.g., trains and rails)
- Airport runways and control towers
- Telephone lines and cellphone towers
- Dams and reservoirs
- Hurricane barriers
- Levees and pumping stations
- Waterways, canals, and ports
- Electrical power lines and connections (i.e., the national power grid)
- Fire stations and equipment
- Hospitals, clinics, and emergency response systems
- Law enforcement and prisons
- Sanitation and waste removal facilities for solid waste, wastewater, and hazardous waste
- Post offices and mail delivery
- Public parks and other types of green infrastructure
"infrastructure: The framework of interdependent networks and systems comprising identifiable industries, institutions (including people and procedures), and distribution capabilities that provide a reliable flow of products and services essential to the defense and economic security of the United States, the smooth functioning of governments at all levels, and society as a whole." - Report of the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, 1997
Why Infrastructure Is Important
We all use these systems, which are often called "public works," and we expect them to function for us, but we don't like to pay for them. Many times the cost is hidden in plain view-added taxes to your utility and telephone bill, for example, may help pay for infrastructure. Even teenagers with motorbikes help pay for infrastructure with every gallon of gasoline used. A "highway-user tax" is added to each gallon of motor fuel (e.g., gasoline, diesel, gasohol) sold. This money goes into what is called the Highway Trust Fund in order to pay for repairs and replacement of roads, bridges, and tunnels. Likewise, each airline ticket you buy has a federal excise tax that should be used to maintain the infrastructure needed to support air travel. Both state and federal governments are allowed to add taxes to certain products and services in order to help pay for the infrastructure that supports them. The infrastructure may begin to crumble if the tax doesn't keep increasing enough. These excise taxes are consumption taxes that are in addition to your income taxes, which also can be used to pay for infrastructure.
Infrastructure is important because we all pay for it and we all use it. Paying for infrastructure can be as complicated as the infrastructure itself. Nevertheless, most people depend on transportation systems and public utilities, which also are essential for the economic vitality of our businesses. As Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem, MA) famously stated,
"You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did." - Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 2011
When Infrastructure Fails
When natural disasters strike, stable infrastructure is necessary for swift delivery of emergency supplies and medical care. When fires rage in drought-ravaged areas of the U.S. we expect firefighters to be on the scene until the neighborhoods are safe. All countries are not so fortunate. In Haiti, for example, the lack of well-developed infrastructure contributed to the deaths and injuries suffered during and after the earthquake of January 2010.
Every citizen should expect to live in comfort and safety. On the most basic level, every community requires access to clean water and sanitary waste disposal. Poorly maintained infrastructure can lead to a devastating loss of life and property. Examples of failed infrastructure in the U.S. include:
- When the Oroville Dam's spillway eroded, thousands of Californians evacuated, 2017
- Unsafe drinking water from lead supply pipes affected the health of children in Flint, Michigan, 2014
- Sewer spills during hard rains in Houston, Texas created a public health hazard, 2009
- The collapse of Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota killed motorists, 2007
- Failure of the levees and pump stations after Hurricane Katrina flooded communities in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005
Government's Role in Infrastructure
Investing in infrastructure is nothing new for governments. Thousands of years ago, Egyptians built irrigation and transportation systems with dams and canals. Ancient Greeks and Romans built roads and aqueducts that still stand today. The 14th-century Parisian sewers have become tourist destinations.
Governments around the world have realized that investing in and maintaining a healthy infrastructure is an important government function. Australia's Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development claims that "It is an investment that has a multiplier effect throughout the economy, generating lasting economic, social and environmental benefits."
In an age of terrorist threats and attacks, the U.S. has stepped up efforts to secure "critical infrastructure," extending the list of examples to systems related to Information and communications, gas and oil production/storage/transportation, and even banking and finance. The list is the subject of an ongoing debate.
""Critical infrastructures now include national monuments (e.g. Washington Monument), where an attack might cause a large loss of life or adversely affect the nation's morale. They also include the chemical industry… A fluid definition of what constitutes a critical infrastructure could complicate policymaking and actions." - Congressional Research Service, 2003
In the U.S. the Infrastructure Security Division and the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center are part of the Department of Homeland Security. Watchdog groups like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keep track of progress and needs by issuing an infrastructure report card every year.
Books About Infrastructure
- "Infrastructure: The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape" by Brian Hayes
- "The Works: Anatomy of a City" by Kate Ascher
- "Move: How to Rebuild and Reinvent America's Infrastructure" by Rosabeth Moss Kanter
- "The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure" by Henry Petroski
President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, October 1997, pp. B-1 to B-2, PDF at //fas.org/irp/crs/RL31556.pdf
Summary, "Critical Infrastructures: What Makes an Infrastructure Critical?" Report for Congress, Order Code RL31556, Congressional Research Service (CRS), Updated January 29, 2003, PDF at //fas.org/irp/crs/RL31556.pdf
Infrastructure, Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Australian Government, //infrastructure.gov.au/infrastructure/ accessed August 23, 2015
"Elizabeth Warren: There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own" by Lucy Madison, CBS News, September 22, 2011, //www.cbsnews.com/news/elizabeth-warren-there-is-nobody-in-this-country-who-got-rich-on-his-own/ accessed March 15, 2017
Highway Trust Fund and Taxes, U.S.Department of Transportation, //www.fhwa.dot.gov/fastact/factsheets/htffs.cfm accessed December 25, 2017
Ascher, Kate. "The Works: Anatomy of a City." Paperback, Reprint edition, Penguin Books, November 27, 2007.
Hayes, Brian. "Infrastructure: The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape." Paperback, Reprint edition, W. W. Norton & Company, September 17, 2006.
Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. "Move: How to Rebuild and Reinvent America's Infrastructure." 1 edition, W. W. Norton & Company, May 10, 2016.
Petroski, Henry. "The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure." Hardcover, Bloomsbury USA, February 16, 2016.