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Inside America's crumbling infrastructure
The country's aging roads and bridgesbadly need repair or replacement. But are we willing to pay the cost?
By The Week Staff | August 22, 2014
What's the problem?America once had the best road andtransportation system in the world, but nothing lasts forever. Last May, theI-5 bridge near Seattle buckled when an overloaded tractor trailer grazed anoverhead girder, sending two cars plummeting into the river below. In 2007, astretch of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour, killing13, injuring 145, and resulting in repairs costing $234 million. In 2009, the80-year-old Champlain Bridge between upstate New York and Vermont was shut downwith just 10 minutes' warning after an underwater inspection revealed severestructural weaknesses. Throughout the country, many urban roads and highwaysbuilt decades ago now carry five to 10 times the traffic the original engineersexpected and require constant emergency repair — creating horribletraffic jams. Water and gas pipelines laid in the first half of the 20thcentury are failing, leading to explosions and floods. "Some of thisinfrastructure is more than 100 years old," said Rick Grant, owner of aMaryland structural engineering firm, "butit wasn't designed with more than a 50-year life span in mind."
Are the roads and bridges safe?Every four years, the American Society ofCivil Engineers (ASCE) releases a comprehensive assessment of U.S.infrastructure. Its most recent report card, from 2013, had an overall grade ofD+. Catastrophic events remain rare, but the nation's 607,380 bridges have anaverage age of 42 years, and one in nine is rated structurally deficient. Amongthem are the Storrow Drive Bridge in Boston, which has cementpavement too thick for its corroding steel beam structure to support,and the U.S. Route 1/9 Bridge over the Passaic River in New Jersey, which isrusted out. They and dozens of other deficient bridges still carry heavytraffic daily. Despite a recent uptick in government spending to $91 billionannually, the Federal Highway Administration estimates this amount needs to bedoubled. "It's a no-brainer," said Jeffrey Zients, director of theNational Economic Council. "If we don't act, we could lose our competitiveedge in infrastructure."
How did things get so bad?Time and neglect. The U.S. built much ofits vast network of highways and roads beginning in the late 1950s, whenPresident Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act into law to linkrural and urban areas and spur economic growth. For most of the subsequent 40years, government spending on highway construction and maintenance was seen asan important investment and averaged well above 2 percent of gross domesticspending. In 2012, it fell to a 20-year low of 1.5 percent. By comparison,China spends 7 percent of its GDP on infrastructure and India spends 5 percent.As a result, U.S. infrastructure now ranks 14th globally. "When you lookat politicians and Congress," said former ASCE president Andrew Herrmann,"they're not really looking to the future; they're looking to getre-elected."
Where will the money come from?The majority of spending on municipaltransportation projects comes from state and local governments and the federalHighway Trust Fund. The HTF contributes from $40 billion to $50 billion a yearto construction projects and is funded by a gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, arate that has not increased since 1993. Raising the gas tax is "the mostviable, responsible, and effective near-term solution," said AAA'sKathleen Bower. But ever since 1995, when conservative lobbyistGrover Norquist persuaded Republicans to pledge to never raise taxes, Congresshas refused to increase the gas tax. "It's not that they don't likeroads," said President Obama of his GOP counterparts. "They justdon't want to pay for it." Obama has put forth a plan to raise someprivate capital for infrastructure investments, but that is seen as ashort-term solution. "None of the steps we are taking should be seen asa substitute for adequate public financing," said Transportation SecretaryAnthony Foxx. "There is no substitute for that."
How big are the challenges?They are massive, because the publicinfrastructure serving the needs of 316 million people is so large andexpensive to maintain, and it encompasses so many different services andutilities. It includes roads, bridges, mass transit systems, waste- and drinking-watermanagement, levees, dams, ports, electrical grids, and broadband communicationsystems. And it is all interwoven into a complex web, so that failure in onearea can have a cascading effect across the grid. For example, power outagesduring Superstorm Sandy shut down several water treatment facilities, which ledto the release of roughly 11 billion gallons of raw sewage into East Coastwaterways. "What we really need is some innovative thinking aboutfinancing," said Department of Energy senior scientist Tom Wilbanks."It's kind of a national crisis."
Putting Band-Aidson ancient pipesWhile the majority of America's roads andbridges were built in the 1950s, many of our water systems date to the early1900s or even to the 19th century. Cities across the country are starting tosee them fall apart. In late July, a 93-year-old water main burst beneathSunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, sending up to 10 million gallons of drinkingwater gushing into the streets. Residents of Baltimore contend with roughly1,000 bursting pipes every year. In Houston, more than a quarter of the city'swater supply is either lost or unaccounted for because of underground leaks.Every year, there are 240,000 water main breaks in the U.S., and inadequate sewagesystems let up to 850 billion gallons of untreated waste water flow into riversand lakes. Yet despite the growing crisis, the U.S. still relies on "theBand-Aid approach," said Harvey Gobas, co-author of a report onCalifornia's water system. "You fix it, it lasts a few more years, but you still don't have a new pipe."
cruisersailor 4 days agoRepublicans in Congress are so determinedto mess up Obama's legacy they won't vote for infrastructure improvement.Voters who vote Republican are fools.7
Troll man Baggins cruisersailor 3 days agoImproving what? Most highway departmentsare vastly overfunded, I've known people whowork there, they can't even find projects to spend the money."Infrastructure" is an insanely broad term which could include verystupid things and very smart things.
phoenixkevin Troll man Baggins 3 days agoMany agree with you - infrastructure costs10 to 20 times more in the US than it does in other industrialized countries.http://theweek.com/article/ind...The US still insanely wastes money onforeign adventures - at least 'waste' the money within the US borders.3
Petra421 3 days agoWe neglect infrastructure, which couldprovide jobs. We resent the unemployed & poor because we see them as "welfare queens." However, we are all toowilling to spend on "foreign entanglements," which people fromWashington to Eisenhower warned against. Why? Because there's lots of money tobe made by global corporations, with a spider web of connections inside ourgovernment, from these foreign entanglements. War = fortunes made for the few. Bloodlost for the many.5
phoenixkevin Petra421 3 days agoThere is lots of money to be made byspending the money in the US -- many corporations will profit immensely.I'm not sure why we congress would rather spendwaste the money in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan.$6 trillion would build a a lot of bridges,sewers, water desalinization plants and subways...1
Ro Nom 3 days agoWhat do you expect? The last twenty yearsof foreign interventions. Our newest victim is Ukraine. I thought we would havea break when we leave Afghanistan in December.3
phoenixkevin Ro Nom 3 days agoI agree, the trillions we spent in Iraq/Afghanistanwould have made a big difference if spent in the US.2
RATBURL 4 days agoFunny? Seems we have plenty of money tospend on the fucking middle east.4
phoenixkevin RATBURL 3 days agoAs much as $6 trillion say some sourceshttp://www.reuters.com/article...1