Economics for Church Leaders: The Importance of Unexciting Infrastructure – Joe Carter

The Term


What It Means

Congress is currently considering two infrastructure bills to be voted on before a self-imposed deadline later this month. If you’ve heard anything about the plans, it’s likely that they are political (one is bipartisan and one is supported only by Democrats) and that the price tags include staggering numbers ($1 trillion for the bipartisan plan and $4.5 trillion for the Democrat plan). But lost in the debate is what exactly infrastructure is and why it matters.

We don’t talk much about infrastructure because it sounds incredibly unexciting. We often think of infrastructure as the skeleton of our economic system—bridges and highways, ports and railways—which, while essential, do not make for exciting topics of discussion. Yet infrastructure consists of much more than the framework for our transportation system. The federal government has defined infrastructure as 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.

While that definition may not seem much more enthralling, infrastructure has a profound influence on our lives. Infrastructure is one of the primary areas of the economy that has the most direct and long-lasting effect on your church and local community.

Why It Matters

Americans tend to not to give too much thought to infrastructure until it breaks down. And then we assume it’s something the federal government will fix. The federal government, though, has two broad categories of infrastructure: stuff that is its problem and stuff that is your problem.

The “its problem” category is primarily critical infrastructure. Critical Infrastructures are infrastructures that are so vital that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on defense or economic security. The Presidential Policy Directive on Critical Infrastructure Security identifies 16 categories of Critical Infrastructure sectors and the executive agency in charge of maintaining their secure functioning:

Chemical Sector
Commercial Facilities Sector
Communications Sector
Critical Manufacturing Sector
Dams Sector
Defense Industrial Base Sector
Emergency Services Sector
Energy Sector
Financial Services Sector
Food and Agriculture Sector
Government Facilities Sector
Healthcare and Public Health Sector
Information Technology Sector
Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste Sector
Transportation Systems Sector
Water and Wastewater Systems Sector

One or two categories of Critical Infrastructure are likely tmost relevant to your geographic area. It can be helpful to have a broad and general understanding of how changes and regulations in those Critical Infrastructure will affect the local economy of your region and community.

The “our problem” category often includes issues we never think about (again, because we assume all infrastructure problems are the concern of the government). For example, a key type of infrastructure is the dam, a barrier constructed to hold back water and raise its level, forming a reservoir used to generate electricity or as a water supply. The state with the most dams is Texas. As of 2019, there were over 7,000 dams in the state, roughly eight percent of the total in the U.S. About 60 percent are privately owned and their expensive upkeep is the responsibility of the owner.

There are many rural churches (and even more homes of rural churchgoers) located in floodplains that would be affected if one of these dam were to fail. Could your church or home be one of them? Simply being aware of such infrastructure issues can help us be better prepared for emergencies and worst-case catastrophes.

For this local focus, a helpful list of major infrastructure categories is provided by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Every four years, the ASCE provides a comprehensive assessment in its Infrastructure Report Card. Each category receives a letter grade from A to F. For 2021 the ASCE gave these grades at the national level:

Aviation (D+)

Bridges (C)

Broadband (C)

Dams (D)

Drinking Water (C-)

Energy (C-)

Hazardous Waste (D+)

Inland Waterways (D+)

Levees (D)

Ports (B-)

Public Parks (D+)

Rail (B)

Roads (D)

Schools (D+)

Solid Waste (C+)

Stormwater (D)

Transit (D-)

Wastewater (D+)

The ASCE has also produced an individual report card for each state.

In thinking about infrastructure, it can be helpful to take a Zoom Out/Zoom In approach. We Zoom Out by looking at the macro-level issue and Zoom In by looking at the micro-level issue. Whichever we start with should lead us to consider the other perspective. For example, many church plants across the country meet in public schools. As many a church planter has discovered, these public facilities can often be less than functional, with HVAC and plumbing problems being a common source of frustration.

Finding such problems in their own location should lead them to Zoom Out and consider how this might be affecting not only their congregation but the lives of the students in their school district. Similarly, knowing about the problems in infrastructure can help church planters better prepare for a church launch. If a plant is trying to reach lower-income communities, we need to consider what sort of challenges with transportation infrastructure we might face, from lack of public transportation to rural dirt roads that cannot be driven in inclement weather.

Church leaders don’t need to become experts in infrastructure, of course, but we should have a general understanding of which infrastructures will most affect our congregations and communities.

Other Stuff You Should Know

• According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are 4.12 million miles of road in the United States. The core of the nation’s highway system is the 47,575 miles of Interstate Highways, which comprise just over one percent of highway mileage but carry one-quarter of all highway traffic. The Interstates plus another 179,650 miles of major roads comprise the National Highway System, which carries most of the highway freight and traffic in the U.S.

• Most of the roads in the U.S., 2.94 million miles, are located in rural areas, with the remaining 1.18 million miles located in urban areas. Of the 4.07 million miles of road, about 2.68 million miles are paved, which includes most roads in urban areas. However, 1.39 million miles or more than one-third of all road miles in the U.S., are still unpaved gravel or dirt roads. These are largely local roads or minor collectors in rural areas of the country.

• Between 2000 and 2013, the U.S. built an average of 13,788 center-line miles of new roads per year.

• The U.S. has 614,387 bridges, almost four in 10 of which are 50 years or older. According to ASCE, almost 10 percent of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient in 2016, and on average there were 188 million trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day.

• Most funding for the construction of highways comes from the federal Highway Trust Fund, a dedicated, user fee-funded source. The primary funding source for this fund is the federal motor fuels tax. According to the ASCE, the tax of 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel has not been raised since 1993, and inflation has cut its purchasing power by 40 percent.

In 2014, the federal government spent $43.5 billion on capital costs for highway infrastructure (including bridges) and state and local governments spent $48.3 billion. State and local governments are responsible for the operation and maintenance of all highways and roads not located on federal lands.

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