Pols fail to comprehend breadth of infrastructure crisis

About 10 months have passed since the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River during afternoon rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Construction of the bridge’s $234 million replacement may be finished in mid-September, three months ahead of schedule, earning builders a $20 million bonus. The Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty have agreed on a $38 million state fund to help compensate the victims of the Aug. 1 disaster.

All’s well, eh? Perhaps for this bridge in this city. But nationwide, all is not well. Road, bridge and other important public-works infrastructure continue to age and deteriorate as Congress dithers elsewhere. Only disasters move our representatives to act — and in an election year, even those actions seem spotty at best and disingenuous at worst.

The United States has much more than failing bridges to find, fund and fix. The proposals of the remaining presidential candidates do little to inspire faith that they understand the breadth of the problem or have the political skill, will and courage to address it forthrightly.

In December, a commission established by Congress in 2005 under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act—A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) provided the sobering statistics. The United States needs to spend $225 billion annually — more than twice what it does now — for the next 50 years. That’s more than $11 trillion worth of fix-ups on surface transportation systems alone.

But at the moment, the only bill of significance floating through Congress is the National Infrastructure Bank Act written by Sens. Chris Dodd and Chuck Hagel. It’s backed by the American Society of Civil Engineers because it “would establish an independent entity of the federal government to evaluate and finance ‘capacity-building’ infrastructure projects of substantial regional and national significance [emphasis added] …” The word “local” is absent from the bill, so those potholes ruining your car’s suspension will just have to wait. (The bill has other problems as well.)

And what about the nation’s dams, most of which are non-federal? According to the American Society of Civil Engineers newsletter, “ASCE’s 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure conferred a grade of D on the nation’s dams, the same grade as that for U.S. infrastructure as a whole.”

According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials:

• There are more than 87,000 dams currently under state regulation
• 10,127 have been classified as high hazard, meaning they pose a serious threat to human life if they should fail
• Of those high hazard dams, 1,333 have been identified as structurally deficient or unsafe
• The average dam inspector in the US is responsible for more than 400 dams. The ASDSO recommends that each inspector is responsible for fewer than 50 dams.

The Dam Rehabilitation and Repair Act has passed the House and now has been parked in the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works since October. But the bill only provides a total of $200 million through 2012.

Erosion on a levee by the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet

And when the levee breaks? New Orleans is not the only political entity concerned with failures of levees, as happened during Hurricane Katrina. And hurricanes are not the only threat to levee systems.

In Northern California, “more than 1,100 miles of aging levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and its watersheds … contain the fuel that powers the world’s 6th largest economy — water,” according to the state agency that administers the system. “It has been estimated that the loss to California’s economy could be $30 to $40 billion in the event of massive levee failures caused by a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in the Delta region. … Over the past century, 140 levee failures have been recorded” in the 100-year-old levee system that traverses nearly 6,000 miles.

A National Levee Safety Program Act has been introduced for three successive years but has failed to advance through Congress. Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s Web site only indicates unspecified support for “the Water Resources and Development Act, which will provide funding for modernizing the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers’ system of locks and dams.” President Bush vetoed the bill in November only to be over-ridden by Congress. Still, this falls far short of needed levee and flood-protection system overhauls and repairs nationwide.

Flushed a toilet lately? There’s what a PBS report called “the invisible infrastructure. These are the pipes buried underneath cities and towns that deliver clean water and carry away any waste water.” Sewerage infrastructure alone in the nation’s cities is a half-trillion-dollar problem, the report says, and communities are trapped in a Catch-22: “Federal grants for communities to improve their wastewater treatment infrastructure has dried to a trickle over recent decades. Yet communities are compelled by the Clean Water Act, signed into law in 1972, to treat and purify wastewater.”

Without needed work on deteriorating wastewater plants, count on sewer overflows, polluted water and disease outbreaks to threaten local communities. Now, an underfunded Clean Water Act represents unfunded mandates on the states, which cannot afford the cost.

What’s coming out of the faucet? The population of the United States has grown by about 100 million since the Clean Water Act was passed. Americans dispose of more waterborne waste than ever. Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported “[a] vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.” But “federal funding for clean water has been on a steady decline. Overall the federal government contribution to total clean water spending has shrunk dramatically — from 78% in 1978 to just 3% today,” according to Food and Water Watch.

The Clean Water Act of 1972, written by Sens. Edmund Muskie and Howard Baker, has provided more than $72 billion over the past 35 years to allow states to fund local and regional water and wastewater treatment facilities. According to Food and Water Watch, a consortium opposed to privatization of water facilities, President Bush has steadily cut funds for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides direct aid to states:

In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives took an important step to keep America’s water clean and safe by authorizing $14 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund for the next four years. This state revolving loan fund offers critical funds needed to close the 20-year, $440 billion shortfall between available funds and what is needed to ensure that America’s drinking water and water sources meet minimum standards established by the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.

But that’s only $3.5 billion a year for four years to resolve a $440 billion problem.

That’s not all. What about refineries, pipelines, mass transit systems, transmission lines for electricity, air traffic control, weather forecasting systems, and aging chemical and nuclear plants?

Failure to address long-standing, critical infrastructure needs is a threat to national security. But the political stances taken by the remaining presidential candidates, as evidenced by issues positions on their Web sites, do not reflect necessary urgency regarding the nation’s infrastructure needs. Their positions are vague, and financial proposals offer a scant percentage of what’s needed.

Take, for example, Sen. Obama’s issues statement under “Keeping Our Drinking Water Safe“: He seeks “$37.5 million over 5 years for drinking water systems to upgrade their monitoring and security efforts [emphasis added].” But the long-term physical viability of those facilities is never mentioned.

To Sen. Obama’s credit, he says he will “pursue a major investment in our utility grid to enable a tremendous increase in renewable generation and accommodate modern energy requirements, such as reliability, smart metering, and distributed storage [emphasis added].” But that investment is unspecified, as most campaign promises of presidential candidates usually are. It is merely a “talking point.”

Sen. Obama does have an issues plank for “transportation.” He seeks “a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank” to be funded by $60 billion over 10 years to supplant current federal spending. Frankly, that’s a pittance, and the senator’s accompanying fact sheet does not explain how it will be funded.

The only references to infrastructure on the issues section of presidential candidate John McCain’s Web site are contained in his agenda on climate change: “A Comprehensive Plan Will Address The Full Range Of Issues: Infrastructure, Ecosystems, Resource Planning, And Emergency Preparation” and in his statement of stewardship of natural resources: “Ensuring clean air, safe and healthy water.”

On Aug. 8, just seven days following the I-35W bridge collapse, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton unveiled her “Rebuild America Plan” in a speech in Rochester, Minn. The plan would:

• establish a $10 billion “emergency repair fund” to address the backlog of critical infrastructure repairs. (That’s spread over 10 years, or only $1 billion a year.)
• provide $250 million in “emergency assessment grants” to the states to conduct immediate safety reviews of their high-priority, high-risk infrastructure assets. (That’s insufficient to deal with 50 states’ needs.)
• appoint a commission to carry out a comprehensive assessment of our engineering review standards so to better prioritize needed repairs on bridges and roads. (More study? Sure. Why not?)

It’s worth wondering if this plan existed prior to Aug. 1. It appears wholly inadequate to begin to address the nation’s infrastructure needs.

Her plan also promises improvements to mass transit, modernization of ports (in partnership with local governments and the private sector) and congestion-reduction actions. Her plan’s cost?

The total cost of Hillary Clinton’s infrastructure agenda is approximately $3 billion per year. Hillary will finance this cost without increasing the deficit by dedicating a portion of the revenue from her efforts to improve the efficiency of our government. These efforts will include implementing the GAO’s recommendations for reducing improper federal payments, which could save up to $4 billion per year [GAO, 2007]; better managing the federal government’s surplus property, which could save $500 million – $1 billion per year [CAGW 2006; GAO 2007]; freezing the federal travel budget, which could save about $1 billion per year [PPI, 2007]; and streamlining the federal vehicle fleet, which could save about $500 million per year [GAO 2007]. [emphasis added]

Improve the efficiency of government? How often have taxpayers and voters been fed that unpalatable pablum?

In the years to come, expect insignificant progress on repair, renovation and renewal of the means by which the nation cleans and distributes water, provides electricity, transports goods and people and protects against the insults of nature.

Why? Pick a reason.

Begin with a press that rarely reports on infrastructure — until disaster happens — and has failed to sufficiently prod candidates on the issue during the plentiful presidential “debates.”

Politicians need to get elected and stay elected, hence their choice of issues that play well in media. They need issues with buzz. Infrastructure has too little.

The cost is too high. Politicians fear taking responsibility for tax hikes.

There’s a war in Iraq, a country in which the United States has sunk about $520 billion to help Iraq make significant progress on repair, renovation and renewal of the means by which Iraq cleans and distributes water, provides electricity, transports goods and people and protects against the insults of nature.

Meanwhile, rust continues accumulate at home.

photo credits:
new bridge segment: David Joles, Star Tribune
collapsed I-35W bridge: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune
failed Teton Dam: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Mississippi River Gulf Outlet levee: Tyrone Turner, National Geographic magazine

36 replies »

  1. Pingback:
  2. But if we just ignore it then it will go away, right?

    By whichever metric you choose to use, the United States is falling further and further behind. We’re going to wake up one day and find ourselves living in a third world country…if we aren’t already. And when the time comes when we have to pay for infrastructure, we’re not going to have the cash or the “good faith and credit” to do it. But we’ll have a lot of gee whiz military hardware.

  3. Thanks for this, Denny. I’m glad that this complex issue has someone like you to parse it for us. Now if only more politicians would read what you wrote above, understand what it means, and then put their collective asses on the line to fix it.

  4. As long as we have SUVs clogging the freeways and streets we will not be a 3rd world country.
    And don’t forget, mountain bikes can handle potholes much better than touring bicycles and they cost a lot more.

  5. And to think, if we weren’t flushing money down the toilet with the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the War on (some) Drugs, locking up nonviolent people (mostly minorities) while the drug laws themselves were racially motivated, is accomplishing exactly what it set out to do: recover the slaves lost by the Civil War. Slavery ended in 1865; by 1904 we had possession laws against Chinese men on the west coast that they would be arrested if they were operating an opium den. Not white men, mind you, only asian men would be arrested. Of course, white men had no interest in opium, they were happy with the booze, so they outlawed the Chinese habit of smoking opium. Then they outlawed ‘marijuana’ a.k.a. cannabis not only because the migrant mexicans brought it with them but the cannabis plant is a threat to so many industries (with the release of the hemp decorticator) that it could cut hundreds of slave-hours harvesting, retting hemp. Paper, tobacco, building materials, paint/varnish, livestock feed, medicine, pesticides, etc would all be taken care of if hemp cultivation were allowed today.

    Check me out on (yes that’s a zero not an o), it’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on minorities.

  6. Wow.

    And for some reason I kept thinking that one day the USA will break up into smaller regions.

    I have no idea why but I kept thinking about Socialist Bolivia and the ‘push’ from the wealthy internal regional areas for more self governing autonomy.

  7. 50 billion annually? That should not be a problem. In fact, in a few years time the price of a hamburger and large coke will cost around that 2 billion US$.

  8. I wouldn’t put too much weight on campaign promises. No one is going to say “I’m going to spend half a trillion on new pipes” during a campaign. That would be suicide.

    Of course, they wouldn’t be able to get that funding afterwards either, but I believe Obama would be the most likely to try.

  9. This is an excellent discussion. Thus, to start, thank you for bringing a little light to a basically ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ issue arena for most … that is, until a bridge collapses and then it is a 15-minutes of fame item.

    A key part of this challenge, of course, is the battle between patching holes and fostering a 21st century, sustainable infrastructure. How to get money upfront, in a ‘cost to own’ investment rather than lowest bidder ‘cost-to-own’. And, moving toward lower energy-intensive infrastructure (for construction, maintenance, operations). The resources for that will, sadly, be hard-pressed to find in the challenging environment that the Republicans have created.

    And, sadly, one thing that has been missing is how serious investment in moving on this path is the type of stimulus that moves the economy today while making it operate better tomorrow. Instead, “stimulus” money is giving out in checks to be spent on buying things, today, rather than improving things for today and tomorrow.

  10. Thanks for the link, Dr. Denny. That is an excellent solution. It also raises an interesting issue about capitalism…something that gets a well deserved bum rap. But capitalism isn’t necessarily evil. Unfortunately, we apply it in ways that encourage its abuse.

    I like to imagine (because imagination is all that i’m going to get) an America where instead of sending our hard-earned income off to LLC’s on Wall Street in order to get table crumbs from the transfer of wealth, we might invest those same monies into local economies, infrastructure, etc. I have nothing against Wall Street or corporations, per se, they’ve a right to exist and profit. But we cannot keep giving them all the money (and power that goes with it) and then turn around and bemoan their heartless behavior.

    We’ve been sold the idea that an IRA or a 401K makes you part of the ownership class…a real capitalist. But does it? I don’t want to see infrastructure owned by private companies, but i would be happy to see it owned by the equivalent of community credit unions…i’d plunk my toll money into the bin with some pride.

    Dream on, sucker…

  11. So it looks like Hillery has proposed an inadequate plan for beginning to deal with the problem. What have any of the other candidates proposed?

  12. During my first visit to the USA, back in 1984, I was shocked by the state of decay and dilapidation of the USA’s roads and bridges, and other infrastructures. That tens of thousands of bridges haven’t collapsed since then is very much a miracle.

  13. Lex, #10 – apart from the fact that capitalism is fundamentally evil since it is based and thrives on slavery and on the pillage of poor countries, it is also eminently unsustainable and is now entering its death throes, at last. One could say that capitalism is one huge ponzi scheme, and we all know how those work and where they lead.

  14. That Christian Science Monitor article said:

    “It would be a monumental mistake to turn the future of America’s infrastructure over to the same crowd that brought us the subprime crisis, an economy loaded down with debt, and recession”

    The author has it so wrong, on so many different levels.


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  16. “[a] vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.”

    Scare tactic. The amount of drugs is so small compared to the volume of water that it’s a phony issue. The fools that believed that story went out and bought bottled water or water filters. It reminds of the syringes on the beaches stories years ago to freak people out.

  17. It’s not a new problem either. In 1983 I moved to Connecticut from the Great Lakes region. When I got there, I saw signs posted all over the place declaring “Road Legally Closed – Pass At Your Own Risk”. These were posted because the state didn’t have the money to fix the roads and intended the signs to free the state from liability for damage to vehicles. There were even “Sidewalk Legally Closed” signs. Eventually these notices were all determined to be illegal and not serve their intended purpose of exonerating the state. I left CT after two years, and ceased worrying about the condition of their roads.

  18. Why would the ruling class of the U.S want to bother repairing anything when they are busy setting up end game overseas and digging bloody great underground cities to protect themselves from whatever happens in 2012. Money doesn’t mean that much to them, control is what is wanted, whether it be debt, chipped humans doped up water, mercury in infants vaccines or aerosol spraying of dodgy chemical soups from planes… the list goes on. Remember, 50 million rulers to 500 million servants and the rest are expendable.

  19. Amounts spent on the 2008 campaign in retrospect and review reveals that Americans will sing and dance while Rome burns – given the crisis in its infrastructures and transportation and security systems.

    In an earlier day, or era, more rational minds would have prevailed – and priorities assigned by judgments of what is important to Americans for an American future and for American safety.