Why An Infrastructure Package Could Harm Critical Infrastructure

25 May 2021

Seemingly the only area of public policy left unmarred by partisan politics is infrastructure. Both sides of the aisle agree that infrastructure maintenance, resilience, and investment are essential. While partisan differences emerge when defining the scope of infrastructure or the price tag, there is clear bipartisan support for revitalizing American infrastructure. But support for rebuilding without understanding some nuanced infrastructure issues could result in destruction to some of the very infrastructure we rely on for modern life.

For most people, the word infrastructure likely elicits imagery of highways, bridges, buildings, and electrical transmission towers. This is absolutely the correct imagery. Infrastructure includes the structures and systems that facilitate a wide manner of travel, transmission, and storage for people, resources, and goods. What many may not conjure a picture of – and for good reason, because it is out of sight – is pipelines and underground service lines.

Commonly referred to as “facilities”, “utilities”, or “underground infrastructure”, the totality of underground pipelines, cables, wires, and mains under our feet are one of the most important components of infrastructure that we have.

Pipelines carry raw energy resources that generate the power for over a third of the country, as well as the natural gas needed to heat homes and cook food. They carry refined products and resources consumers rely on like gasoline. Other pipelines carry water and waste. Beyond pipelines, a vast system of transmission and distribution lines transfer electrical power under-foot, just like the electrical lines overhead along the road. Still more subsurface infrastructure provides homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, and consumers with telecommunications services like phone and internet access.

So how might an infrastructure package aimed at rebuilding our roads and bridges, modernizing the electrical grid, and improving broadband access threaten existing infrastructure? The answer is the same as why people do not typically picture underground infrastructure – things out of sight are out of mind.

Read our latest policy brief here.

Every year, damage to subsurface infrastructure amounts to hundreds of thousands of incidents, causing dozens of casualties, and costing billions in damage and economic harm. Whenever someone excavates or digs into the earth, they risk striking one of these facilities. That is because over 20 million miles of these subsurface utilities crisscross the United States. There is an entire collaborative system designed to protect this infrastructure known as damage prevention. But even with this system, construction activity breaking ground causes damage every day.

For each of the last five years, excavation damage has trended higher. In 2019 alone, it is estimated that the direct and indirect costs from excavation damage amounted to $30 billion. Other estimates put the annual economic harm as high as $100 billion in the United States.

It is clear why the costs can be so high – striking a pipeline can lead to an explosion or loss of product, repair costs, delays in construction, hospitalizations or injuries, business and reputation harm, and lack of service to those downstream. Multiplying this by the roughly half million damage incidents each year reveals the crisis.

That is the reason that the latest infrastructure package poses a risk to existing infrastructure. The obvious goal – and legitimate outcome – will be to build up American infrastructure. But in the course of doing so, there will be many underground facilities impacted, destroyed, and taken off line.

The current excavation damage crisis is more than a correlation between construction activity and damage. In the last five years, damage has been higher year over year. What’s more, the ratio of damage to construction dollar spent is also increasing. Since 2016, damage per million dollars of construction spending has inflated by 22 percent, with damage incidents even rising against a backdrop of virtually flat spending.

This means greater damage is not simply a function of more construction activity but reveals a fundamental problem in the damage prevention process. If not addressed, the impact of increasing construction activity will mean that a national infrastructure package is poised to produce a surge in damage. The primary concern with the proposed $2 trillion package is that it means aggravating an increasing damage trend by infusing the construction sector with damage-risking dollars.

Fortunately, there are ways to address this and even commit high levels of infrastructure investment without guaranteeing high rates of excavation damage. To do that, the Biden Administration and Congress must include language in the infrastructure package specifically designed to bolster the damage prevention system and implement needed damage-reducing technology systemwide.

Unless or until such an action is taken, the trends indicate more damage will result. And if a vast amount of infrastructure spending is injected into the economy, without systemic reforms, the rate of damage could skyrocket.

To learn more, read our latest Policy Brief: Building Back Better and Protecting What We’ve Built


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy