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December 09, 2016
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Infrastructure’s long economic shadow

The topic of our country’s aging infrastructure may seem far removed from our everyday lives, until some lifeline in our own backyard, like the Narrowsburg Bridge or the Skinners Falls Bridge, makes the list of decaying structures in need of emergency repair. In fact, emergency repair is only part of the story.

The news this week that the Narrowsburg Bridge has a new, lower weight limit for safety reasons and will become a one-lane span (at first temporarily and then for years to come until permanent repairs can be made) brings with it questions about what impact this may have on our Upper Delaware communities.

From the river’s headwaters to the mouth of the Delaware Bay, the Delaware River Basin is a driver of economic activity. Its natural capital of forests and farmland, open water and open spaces is valued at more than $10 billion.* This wealth in turn helps generate jobs. In New York State and Pennsylvania alone (not counting New Jersey and Delaware), jobs directly associated with the river basin total more than 160,000 earning $3.3 billion in wages, and jobs indirectly associated with the river basin total more than 194,000 earning $2.6 billion. The river basin has not even reached its full potential for economic growth, but failing infrastructure undermines the possibilities.

For years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been warning that failures of key structures are becoming more frequent. In 2009, the society gave a “C” to the state of repair of U.S. bridges, and a “D-minus” to the soundness of our roads.

Now, the ASCE has just released a brand new study that examines what deteriorating infrastructure means for America’s economic future. The study, entitled “Failure to Act,” concluded, “The results show that deteriorating infrastructure, long known to be a public safety issue, has a cascading impact on the nation’s economy, negatively affecting business productivity, gross domestic product, employment, personal income and international competitiveness.”

The report looked at infrastructure deficiencies for transportation, water services, energy and electricity, marine ports and airports, and inland waterways. Among its conclusions was this: “By 2020, America’s projected surface transportation infrastructure deficiencies are expected to cost the national economy cumulatively almost $900 billion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), rising to $2.7 trillion through 2040.” Further, “by 2020, the economy is expected to lose almost 3.5 million jobs, and mounting impacts from underinvestment in infrastructure will result in nearly seven million jobs lost by 2040.”

On the other hand, “economic benefits of infrastructure investment reverberate though every sector of the economy.”

To see the threat to local economies, one need only to look at the economic impact of the recent closing of the Skinners Falls Bridge, which has had a decidedly negative effect on the Milanville General Store, and has contributed to the further isolation of that rural community.

Luckily, the Narrowsburg Bridge will not shut down, but one can foresee that single-lane traffic will likely only bring backups and congestion at certain times. Commuters who have other choices of where to cross the river may decide to avoid the Narrowsburg crossing, and for the few months while the new weight limit is in effect, heavier commercial traffic will be rerouted to avoid Narrowsburg. The bridges of the Upper Delaware are arteries that keep the economic lifeblood of the region circulating. The fact that our bridges have gotten to this deplorable state, when warnings about failure to invest in infrastructure have long been common knowledge, is disgraceful.

Today, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can either continue on this path of letting our infrastructure deteriorate from insufficient investment, or we can turn the corner to follow a new path. Rural communities are at risk for being left behind in the decades ahead unless there is meaningful investment in our economic future. At a bare minimum, rural communities like ours need safe, reliable roads and bridges, clean air and water, enough electricity, enough jobs. We need investment in infrastructure if we are to have a good foundation for a bright economic future. Further neglect is unacceptable for the future wellbeing of the Upper Delaware Region.

*Data is from the study, “Socioeconomic Value of the Delaware River Basin in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania: The Delaware River Basin, an economic engine for over 400 years” by Gerald J. Kauffman, University of Delaware, October 11, 2001. See: