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How to Invest as America Spends $190 Billion to Fix Our Highway System

The United States' Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was the biggest, most expensive public works project since the Pharaohs had the Pyramids built.

The Interstate System, started in 1956, became the envy of the entire world, except perhaps Germany, symbolizing a nation on the march to progress – a four-lane wonder stretching from sea to shining sea.

But now, in the early decades of the 21st century, that once-vaunted highway network is overwhelmed, underfunded, and flat out crumbling in parts.

Interstate 5 is the West Coast's main artery, spanning the distance from Canada to Mexico. Last week, a portion of Interstate 5 fell into the Skagit River north of Seattle.

The Skagit River Bridge was 58 years old, and listed as "functionally obsolete," meaning the bridge was safe but did not meet current standards. No one was killed, but three people were injured as their vehicles plunged, along with the bridge's deck, into the river.

Thirteen people were killed and 145 injured in August 2007 when a bridge carrying Interstate 35W across the Mississippi River at Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour. In that tragedy, the bridge was found to have been over its weight limit, and some non-critical components had been corroded by, of all things, bird droppings.

Failing Grades for Roads, Bridges

Not surprisingly, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given American road infrastructure a D grade and bridge infrastructure a C+.

Of particular concern are those bridges. ASCE estimates that 200 million daily trips in the country's 102 largest metro areas are made over bridges that are deficient in some way. It's not surprising, given that the country's 607,380 bridges have an average age of 42 years. That's fairly long in the tooth for vital infrastructure.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the government needs to invest $20.5 billion annually to get America's bridges into shape. But current annual investment is just $12.8 billion, around $8 billion short of the total needed.

Roads in general are even more demanding of attention. The Federal Highway Administration says that a hefty $170 billion per year is needed to improve capacity and performance.

Who's likely to step into the gap (or maybe we should call it the pothole)?
The companies that step in to pick up the slack are likely to be larger ones, with decades of experience and a global presence. That's not to say there won't be any room for the little guys, at the local level, but there will be a need for giants.

When these engineering firms set to work, they can accomplish wonders for infrastructure – and shareholders.

Here are some of the likely players, and how to invest to profit from this infrastructure makeover.

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