Hurricane Sandy's path of destruction in the Northeast is a stark reminder that investing in cities matters. Recovery efforts have been hampered by an aging infrastructure that has not kept pace with the region's explosive growth or its place in the global economy. Those cracks will weigh down on every American in the coming years in the form of disaster relief, redevelopment aid and lost economic activity.
Nearly three weeks after the storm roared ashore on the New Jersey coast, thousands are still without power. Tens of thousands more have either been unable to return to their homes or to resume a normal life because of the damage to offices, schools, transit networks, electrical and telecommunications facilities and other vital infrastructure. President Barack Obama and the governors of New Jersey and New York, Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, responded well in the immediate aftermath by focusing attention on the human toll of a storm that killed at least 120 people in the United States, left 8 million without power, wiped out entire neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey and impacted more than 50 million people along the Eastern Seaboard.
But the price tag for rebuilding from the Category 1 hurricane could exceed $70 billion — just to replace the aging public works already there without making any additional infrastructure investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that 42 percent of New York's bridges are deficient; its roads and major highways are worse. New Jersey is in similarly poor shape. Given that the metropolitan region is responsible for about $3 trillion in output — one-fifth of America's economy — the entire nation has a stake in keeping its densest urban area operating as smoothly as possible. Some economists fear the storm could cut U.S. economic growth by up to half a percentage point in the fourth quarter as businesses and employers struggle to recover.
The New York region, though, is hardly alone in falling behind. The engineers' society estimates the nation's infrastructure needs $2.2 trillion over the next five years, most of it for roads, transit and water projects. Florida's grades for infrastructure have fallen since 2008; the society gives the state a D for energy, flood control and coastal management and C's for most road and water projects. The lack of investment in roads, bridges, ports and airports led the World Economic Forum in its latest competitiveness report to place the U.S. infrastructure 14th among 144 nations, behind much of Europe and Asia.
The presidential candidates did the nation a disservice in the 2012 campaign by putting off a serious debate on urban policy. Cities are not only the nation's economic engines; they are the place more people are calling home. The urban population grew faster in the last decade than did the nation's growth overall. That shift will require a newfound willingness to invest in the basics that residents and businesses expect, from decent roads and airports to rail lines, sewers and schools. America's competitive edge depends on it.