Van Alen Report 19: America’s Infrastructure

This work is part of Van Alen Report, an umbrella initiative; learn more about it here.


    For the first Van Alen Report in twelve years, we examine the dire condition of America’s infrastructure. Experts from various disciplines participate in a sweeping exploration of how leaders may repair the nation’s infrastructure in ways that support better and more just outcomes for all.


    When Van Alen Institute runs a design competition, teams are connected with various experts and stakeholders throughout the process. We have learned that interdisciplinary collaboration between communities, designers, and other professionals gives design teams a better understanding of both the problems they are working to solve and the complex needs of the communities they aim to serve.

    For the first Van Alen Report in twelve years, we are adapting this interdisciplinary model in order to discuss America’s infrastructure crisis. Looking at infrastructure from different perspectives is sensible because infrastructure touches so many different facets of our lives—for better and for worse. As Nicole DuPuis, an expert in urban innovation at the National League of Cities and a contributor to this report reminds us, functional infrastructure “delivers our safe, clean water; it provides the public spaces in which we engage in civic life…; it gets us safely to the places where we live, work, play, and pray.” However, when infrastructure falls apart, economic prospects, social ties, sense of security and wellbeing, and trust in public officials crumbles along with it.

    The perspectives gathered here help illuminate a path forward as the United States debates its infrastructure’s repair. But this exercise raises an obvious question: how did we get into this mess in the first place? Throughout the report, the causes of America’s infrastructure crisis are alluded to frequently but no single contributor explores the overall predicament in depth. Therefore, in the introduction, we decided to contextualize the situation as it relates to the perspectives collected.

    For this report, we haven’t restricted the conversation to a single method of financing, recent technological development, or specific political proposal. Rather our contributors offer insights on how society may approach financing, technology and policy broadly to make smarter decisions about infrastructure—decisions that may result in better and more just outcomes for all.

    We hope that as you read the five perspectives presented here, you will appreciate the range of expertise and diversity of opinion. That said, this report is largely focused on improving existing infrastructure. Recent events in Houston have revealed yet again the limits of both the infrastructure we have in place and our ability to conceive the transportation, energy, and water infrastructure needed for the future. To expand this report, we are asking our network of passionate designers, scholars, professionals, and urban thinkers for ideas and strategies to help cities meet the daunting challenge climate change poses. We look forward to hearing from you and sharing your insights.

    Andrew Brown, Editor

    David van der Leer, Former Executive Director


    Much of America’s infrastructure is reaching the end of its lifecycle. About 40 percent of America’s bridges are over 50 years old, and, between 2000 and 2015, the average age of our streets and highways increased from 23 to 28 years. Declining federal support for maintenance and an affinity amongst politicians for ribbon cutting over pothole filling has exacerbated the aging process.

    The Highway Trust Fund, the federal government’s fund for transportation infrastructure, is approaching a $180 billion deficit, while its dedicated source of revenue, the federal gasoline tax, has not been raised since 1993. Less federal involvement has left state and local governments to shoulder more of the burden. That said, states sometimes divert their declining gas tax revenues toward non-infrastructure items, leaving local governments to face the problem with only limited and unreliable support from Washington and state legislatures.

    The replacement of the eastern span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge serves as the quintessential infrastructure boondoggle. Originally billed at $250 million in 1995, the span ultimately cost taxpayers $6.5 billion. While a simple viaduct would have proven sufficient, Jerry Brown, then Mayor of Oakland, led the charge for a “signature” span, which resulted in the final single tower design. That tower, combined with engineering studies and rising labor and steel costs throughout construction—and a flawed process of cost estimation—dramatically escalated the final price.

    To secure money needed for existing infrastructure like municipal water systems or for new projects like automated transportation, many cities and states are initiating public-private partnerships (P3s). Ideally, P3s should balance risks and rewards on both sides, but recent experience suggests all sides should enter with caution. Uber and the city of Pittsburgh dissolved their partnership to bring driverless taxis to the city once it became clear that Uber was unlikely to live up to its commitment to provide job creation, free rides, or support for the city’s federal grant application to improve transportation.

    Some cities that completely buckle under mounting cost pressures face a daunting prospect: emergency management. At best, emergency management laws, currently enacted in 19 states, rescue troubled cities from dire fiscal straits. At worst, cost cutting becomes an objective unto itself and local concerns are treated with indifference or contempt. In Flint, Michigan, state-appointed managers decided to save money by drawing the city’s water from the Flint River. The ensuing contamination disaster gave way to a crisis of confidence in government. Many city residents still feel badly mistreated and alienated from the officials charged with protecting their water. Having had a critical piece of its infrastructure compromised, it’s unclear whether Flint will ever fully recover.

    Lastly, at a time when oil pipelines are proliferating in North America, and more communities are forced to live with these assets for generations, it is worth asking whether the social benefits of that infrastructure will last nearly as long.

    Authorization for the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines and America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement notwithstanding, increased disruption of production, along with developments in alternative energy, raise doubt about the long term usefulness of such projects. Beyond Standing Rock, resistance to pipeline construction has sprung up across the country, and, in his essay for this report, Julian Brave NoiseCat notes the oil industry’s concerns over the impact of resistance on future production. Though gas prices are currently low, so, too, is the price of crude (about $50/barrel). The availability of oil from both OPEC and North America may be driving oil prices toward a new more industry-disruptive normal.

    On the consumption side, uncertainty grows. Over 130 American cities joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a significant development given that cities, with their large volumes of cars, produce roughly two-thirds of the nation’s emissions. Their efforts to support cleaner, more energy-efficient commutes will likely be aided by increased numbers of electric vehicles, which are projected by Bloomberg New Energy Finance to achieve price-competitiveness with liquid fuel-based vehicles by 2022. In the solar market, prices have plummeted, spurring the generation of electricity that is clean, cheap, and renewable. Since 2008, battery costs have fallen 80 percent and Tesla plans to produce batteries that can last 215 miles after a single charge. Even as re-authorization of Dakota Access increases supply, we may be witnessing a tipping point in oil demand.

    — Andrew Brown, Editor


    Infrastructure Spending Done Right

    David Levinson of the University of Sydney on ensuring our infrastructure provides greater prosperity over the long-term.

    The Age of the Smart City

    Nicole Dupuis of the National League of Cities on the challenges facing city officials who hope to utilize data and new technology to their fullest potential.

    Disruption Beyond Standing Rock

    Policy analyst Julian Brave Noisecat explores the conflict over indigenous rights and energy infrastructure.

    Good Design Over Grand Gestures

    Aaron Betsky presents a sweeping vision of how the US may improve existing infrastructure and build greater value into the new.


    Mitchell Beer, Smarter Shift
    Jonathan Peress, Natural Resource Defense Council
    JoElla Straley, National League of Cities

    Van Alen Report 19 Staff

    David van der Leer
    Andrew Brown
    Manuel Miranda Practice (MMP)
    Iain Campbell, Helios Design Labs
    Aman Bardia
    Arielle Hersh