Roads, bridges and the nation's other infrastructure steadily growing older and weaker. Given low interest rates and elevated unemployment, this is an ideal moment to invest in fixing them.
Our structures are aging as fast as we are. From 2000 to 2010, the median human age in the United States rose by almost two years, from 35.3 to 37.2, and the average age of nonresidential corporate fixed assets increased by about the same amount. Fixed assets as a whole aged from an average of 20.7 years to 22.1.
Does age matter? Unfortunately, with infrastructure it does.
A December 2010 report from the Department of Homeland Security underscores the threat. "Age," it says, "often acts together with and may reinforce the effect of other factors such as design, maintenance, and operation in increasing the vulnerability of infrastructure."
Consider the situation in New York State, where about 10 percent of the roughly 22,000 bridges were built before 1930. More than 10 percent of these old bridges have a superstructure rating of poor or worse, compared with less than 5 percent of the bridges built during the past four decades.
As my former colleague Larry Summers has written, "No one who travels from the United States abroad can doubt that we have an enormous infrastructure deficit. Surely even leaving aside any possible stimulus benefits, current economic conditions make this the ideal time for renewing the nation's infrastructure."
So what to do?
The 2009 stimulus bill helped a bit: It allocated about $100 billion to infrastructure investment (estimates vary slightly depending on the definition of "infrastructure"). But that was only about 12 percent of the total bill, and it was insufficient to address the growing problem.
Four steps are needed now.
First, we need to couple immediate federal spending on public assets with substantial, credible deficit-reduction measures that are scheduled to take effect later on. Such a "barbell" approach to fiscal policy would require that Republicans acknowledge the value of additional stimulus while the unemployment rate is high, and that Democrats see how Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security could be preserved and strengthened through certain cost-saving measures over time. The upfront piece should include an ambitious $250 billion infrastructure program (including federal, state and local spending) over the next two years.