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US infrastructure: Increasingly unsafe

By Alan Caruba
web posted March 21, 2005

Years ago when I had a full head of hair, I worked for the New Jersey Institute of Technology and gained a great respect for engineers and architects. Without them, nothing gets built, nothing works, and we would all be back rubbing two sticks together to make a fire.

In early March, my local daily newspaper ran a story that was four paragraphs long and buried at the bottom of the page. "Engineers see US Infrastructure Sinking." It was one of those stories deemed newsworthy enough to include since it cited a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, but I doubt that anyone at the paper considered the full implications of the story. There was no mention of it on the broadcast news media. After all, how exciting are bad bridges and solid waste management?

Let me tell you how important it is; if some attention and a whole lot of money is not spent on the nation's infrastructure, i.e., aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste removal, navigable waterways, parks and recreation, rail travel, roads, schools, security, solid waste, transit, and wastewater, then life in this country as we know it is going to resemble a Third World nation.

How bad is it? The ASCE report, issued every four years, gives the national infrastructure an overall grade of D, down from a D+ in 2001. The Society estimates it would take a total investment of $1.6 trillion dollars over five years to bring these various elements up to acceptable levels. "If we treated our own homes like we treat our infrastructure," says William Henry, ASCE president, "we'd all live in shacks."

"The nation's infrastructure is sliding toward failure and the prospect for any real improvement is grim," says Henry. One thing I know about civil engineers, they are not prone to exaggeration.

Who shall we blame? Let's start with Congress which holds the purse strings for many of the improvements needed. Then we can move onto the States, virtually all of which have spent themselves into such debt that finding money to fix bridges and repair roads is going to be put off as long as possible. Many States haven't been able to support local initiatives to repair schools. In my home State, the New Jersey Supreme Court aggregated power to itself to impose billions in repairs to the worst schools because the legislature wouldn't. The federal government which effectively controls the nation's education system, hasn't assessed the condition of America's schools since 1999. It was estimated that $127 billion was needed then. Others think that the real cost could be as high as $268 billion.

Of the twelve infrastructure categories, none have improved since 2001. Three new categories were added for the 2005 report. Most Americans haven't a clue how clean drinking water is delivered to their faucets or sufficient electrical energy moves through an aging grid or how, when the flush the toilet, waste is transported away. And every day, six billion gallons of clean, treated drinking water disappears "mostly due to old, leaky pipes and water mains," says Henry. "That's enough to serve the population of California."

PotholesPeople grumble as they drive over highways that are increasingly filled with potholes and cracks, or a lack of streets add up to 3.5 billion hours stuck in traffic. Poor road conditions cost each American $257 a year in repairs and operating costs. That adds up to $54 billion. Many hope that public transit will help relieve this problem, but many transit services are borrowing funds just to maintain operations as they raise fares and cut back service. The funds for long-term transportation programs haven't been authorized since they expired on September 30, 2003, although Congress seems close to passing funds for highway improvement.

For the first time since World War II, rail capacity has reached a point that has created chokepoints and delays likely, says the ASCE report, to increase the cost of freight rail 50 per cent by 2020.

Everyone pays for such failure to tend to critical elements of the infrastructure. Trucks deliver the bulk of all goods moved in the nation. They need good roads. Food, chemicals, coal and a host of other goods move by rail. The ASCE report estimates that $12 to $13 billion per year needs to be spent to maintain existing rail infrastructure for future growth.

Our population keeps growing and with it an increased demand for electricity. We are not building enough power generation facilities and the transmission system is so shaky that an August 2003 blackout on the East Coast cost billions in lost productivity and revenue. Transformers, switches, protection devices, meters, insulators and other elements of the system are needed to make it work, but those in use now need to be upgraded and the whole system needs to be expanded with the building of new power generation facilities. This is why California ran into such terrible problems a few years ago and dumped its then Governor in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

We Americans like to think that we are number one in all categories, but our aging, failing infrastructure has been ignored now at such risk that the threats posed by terrorism will pale in comparison if we do nothing. It isn't glamorous. Hollywood is not making films about it. The only time it makes news is when something goes wrong. And four inches of newsprint doesn't begin to tell the story.

Right now, in Congress, reactionary Democrats have striven mightily to stall Bush administration transportation and energy bills to address some of these problems. Time to start writing your representatives and senators to demand they get their priorities straight. What will it matter if Social Security goes bust if the water from your tap is undrinkable? If bridges are so dangerous you will fear to cross them? If the lights don't go on when you flip the switch?

Alan Caruba writes a weekly commentary, "Warning Signs", posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba, March 2005

 

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