The Importance of Infrastructure

Networks and Systems That Keep Things Moving

Businessman is pressing button on touch screen interface in front Logistics Industrial Container Cargo freight ship for Concept of fast or instant shipping, Online goods orders worldwide
Global Transportation Infrastructure Network. Thatree Thitivongvaroon/Getty Images (cropped)

 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 being developed 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 often misspelled as "infastructure." Knowing that some words begin with infra- helps define them. The word infrared describes eletromagnetic rays with wavelengths under the color red; compare this with ultraviolet waves, that are beyond (ultra-) the violet color.

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
  • Schools
  • Law enforcement and prisons
  • Sanitation and waste removal facilities — solid waste, wastewater, and hazardous waste
  • Post offices and mail delivery
  • Public parks and other types of green infrastructure

Infrastructure Definition

"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) that you buy. 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
  • 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 an ongoing debate.

"Critical Infrastructures: Infrastructures which are so vital that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating impact on defense or economic security." — Report of the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, 1997
"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 Office of Infrastructure Protection 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