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The Legacy of Urban Disinvestment: Crumbling Critical Infrastructure

States and the federal government have left underfunded cities to foot the bill for vital infrastructure maintenance and repairs.

Millions of Americans live in cities both large and small. In fact, eighty percent of the U.S. population and seventy percent of Black and Latino Americans now live in an urban area. But, the infrastructure that urban communities rely on to get to work and deliver clean water to their homes is falling apart. As discussed in the first post of this series, the policies and politics of the late twentieth century left many American cities with falling urban populations and shrinking tax bases. With dwindling municipal budgets, many city leaders were forced to defer infrastructure maintenance and repairs.

Federal policies compounded this problem. Rather than support urban centers with additional federal infrastructure spending, the federal government refrained from making major infrastructure investments and relied on states to distribute what funds were allotted for public works. Since the end of the New Deal, real federal spending on maintenance and capital projects remained flat or decreased. States and localities were left to manage this crisis on their own.

Today, decades of disinvestment and maintenance backlogs have created a critical infrastructure crisis across the nation. Our drinking water systems, roads, and bridges are crumbling, and thanks to deferred maintenance, the cost to make necessary repairs is projected to be astronomical. A Volcker Alliance report from 2019 estimated a price tag of more than $1 trillion for state and federally-owned infrastructure alone. And we are still underinvesting. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that today the U.S. is only paying about half of its infrastructure bill with an investment gap of $2.59 trillion over ten years.

The negative impacts of this massive backlog are already being felt in urban communities, and low-income and Black communities are often subject to the most harm. The recent water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi perfectly illustrates how 20th century urban disinvestment is hurting Black communities today.

More than 80% of Jackson residents are Black and about 25% are living in poverty. The city has two main water treatment facilities, one of which is more than 100 years old. A further 100+ miles of water pipes in the city are also more than 100 years old. These deteriorating water distribution pipes have not had proper maintenance in decades, leaving the system incredibly vulnerable to crises. In 2021, an extreme cold snap took the treatment plants offline and left much of the city without water for nearly a month. In 2022, storms and flooding at the nearby Pearl River knocked these treatment plants offline again, leaving the entire city without water for more than a month yet again.

Though repairs were made in 2022 that brought the water system back online both the Mayor of Jackson and Governor of Mississippi agree that these repairs are temporary. Another weather event could render the system inoperable again.

The story of Jackson is not unique. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy knocked much of the New York City subway system offline for weeks as nine of the system’s fourteen tunnels flooded. In the last ten years, the MTA has invested millions in fortifying the system but it continues to flood a few times per year. More recently, in 2020, two Michigan dams failed after a large rain storm, causing numerous evacuations and millions in damages. Both dams were constructed almost one hundred years ago, in 1924 and 1925 respectively. At one of the dams, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had already raised alarm bells about the aging dam’s ability to withstand maximum flood scenarios.

Across the country, communities are incredibly vulnerable to infrastructure failure because of the age of urban infrastructure systems and the decades of deferred maintenance. The Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), commonly referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, committed the federal government to over $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending over the next ten years. Though IIJA is a great first step towards addressing this infrastructure crisis, but much more infrastructure spending--at all levels of government--will be necessary to repair the damage done by the urban disinvestment of the 20th century.


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