A line drawing depicting infrastructure

Rick Geddes on the State of U.S. Infrastructure—and the Evils of Deferred Maintenance

The economist weighs in on why we don’t take enough care of the systems we have, and how the $1 trillion federal legislation will help

By Beth Saulnier

Economist Rick Geddes is passionate about a topic that many people overlook: public infrastructure. Founding director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy, Geddes is a professor of policy analysis and management who has devoted his career to researching the subject—including how infrastructure is operated, funded, and permitted, and how it can be improved through the use of new technology.

A head shot of Rick Geddes
Geddes is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. (Photo provided)

Could you define infrastructure?

I’d put it into two broad buckets. One is the civil networked infrastructure that provides the public services we take for granted in a developed economy—transportation, electric power, clean drinking water, wastewater treatment.

The other bucket is stand-alone facilities—like schools, prisons, courthouses, and hospitals—that aren’t part of a network, but provide basic public goods and services that any society needs.

What about broadband Internet access?

Increasingly, it’s considered a type of infrastructure.

Ten years ago, that would have been debatable, but today there’s broad agreement it should be considered part of civil infrastructure; the pandemic shutdown really drove this. And that brings in a whole set of issues—both in sparsely populated rural areas and in pockets of urban areas that don’t have good access.

Does the U.S. invest enough in its infrastructure?

It’s fair to say that we invest enough in the design and construction of new facilities; our problem is properly maintaining and operating the systems we already have.

Almost all the infrastructure I’ve mentioned is owned by a state, county, or local government, and in a fiscal pinch, they often defer maintenance. Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did a lot of hard work building these facilities—but our generation, frankly, is not doing a good job of taking care of them.

Why is that?

To some extent, because it’s not as exciting as delivering new projects, so we end up with a backlog of deferred maintenance. But if, for example, you don’t keep a bridge in a state of good repair, it deteriorates faster than intended; eventually, you have to tear out major portions, which is really expensive.

Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did a lot of hard work building these facilities—but our generation, frankly, is not doing a good job of taking care of them.

How can we break this habit of kicking the can down the road?

One way is through public-private partnerships: having governments enter into long-term maintenance contracts with private operators, which would bind the public sector to spend the money.

What do you think of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law last fall?

I’m happy with it, for several reasons. First, it was a nice bipartisan signal of how Congress can work across the aisle, which is good for the democratic process.

The second is that normally Congress passes bills that are sector specific—to water, energy, or transportation, for example—but this was a lot of sectors together, which provides an opportunity to improve policies surrounding delivery. The third reason is that it includes money to reduce the backlog of deferred maintenance.

Is the bill large enough in terms of spending?

It sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But it’s no magic wand. We still need to innovate, improve our policies, and increase public-private cooperation. One big problem I’ve seen is that the U.S. is very slow to adopt new infrastructure technologies, like smart stoplights and new materials. The bill will help move that forward.

How much do infrastructure planners need to think about climate change?

There are many ways that infrastructure intersects with climate. One is in electricity generation; what’s the capacity going to be? A lot of states moved away from coal to natural gas; some have moved to renewables. There’s renewed interest in nuclear power and in geothermal energy—like Cornell’s own Earth Source Heat project.

The other piece, of course, is resilience. Infrastructure might be affected by threats like rising sea levels, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes, some of which are associated with climate change.

A crane dominates the site of Cornell's Earth Source Heat test bore hole
Infrastructure in progress: The site of the exploratory borehole—located off Route 366 near the Library Annex—that will allow the University to determine the potential of Earth Source Heat to sustainably heat the Ithaca campus without using fossil fuels. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

What about drought? How might infrastructure address that?

In the U.S., there’s a renewed focus on desalination plants, which convert salt water into fresh water. One near San Diego has come online in recent years. It takes a lot of energy, but you certainly don’t want to run out of fresh water.

Are there examples of infrastructure failure that you think are instructive?

After September 11, there was heightened awareness of the threat of terrorism associated with infrastructure; for example, the Freedom Tower, where the Twin Towers used to be, is built very solidly to resist attack from a truck bomb and other threats.

Over time, there’s been much more awareness of cyber threats to the electric grid. The widespread electrical outage in Texas in 2021 was driven by weather, but it underscored what happens when a region loses power on a broad scale.

One big problem I’ve seen is that the U.S. is very slow to adopt new infrastructure technologies.

Do you think most people understand that just as they maintain their homes, public infrastructure needs regular upkeep?

A lot of people take infrastructure for granted. They don’t think about it until it doesn’t work—until you have lead in the water, a bridge collapse, a power failure, or a snowstorm that shuts down the interstate.

But infrastructure is not free; we have to pay for it, either through taxes or user fees like tolls. It’s just like putting a new roof on your house—but public, and on a much bigger scale.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University

Published June 21, 2022

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