Bridge to the 21st century?
Since 1998, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been publishing an “infrastructure report card” detailing the sorry state of the various parts of our infrastructure. Unfortunately, national attention on the physical infrastructure only rises when something catastrophic happens, as it did in New Orleans in 2005, in Minneapolis on Wednesday after the collapse of a large bridge, or during an electrical blackout.
Like our ecosystems, the physical infrastructure is an essential part of the economy; the economy literally rests on the foundation of ecosystems and the infrastructure. Like the various ecosystems, such as forests and grasslands, lakes and rivers, the infrastructure has increasingly been treated like an asset that can be milked for all its worth, without investment. Like our ecosystems, the neglect of our infrastructure is the result of maximizing income in the short term; instead of insuring that there is some slack in a bridge or a forest, the economy has become nonresilient.
According to the ASCE, bridges need almost $10 billion a year for the next 20 years to be in an adequate state of repair, but governments at all levels are only spending $2 billion. At the same time, cars have become bigger and have been traveling more miles since the bridges were designed and built.
But bridges are not the only problem. The ASCE report card enumerates many infrastructural problems; they estimate that $1.6 trillion needs to be spent in five years for the following sectors (each sector received a grade, mostly D-, D, and D+):
Aviation receives a D+, with airline traffic predicted to increase 4.3 percent a year through 2015.
Bridges received a C, with 27 percent rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
Dams get a D, with 3,500 rated unsafe.
Drinking water is a D-, with federal funding “less than 10% of the total national requirement”
Energy (national power grid) is a D, and I will quote from the report card in full:
The U.S. power transmission system is in urgent need of modernization. Growth in electricity demand and investment in new power plants has not been matched by investment in new transmission facilities. Maintenance expenditures have decreased 1% per year since 1992. Existing transmission facilities were not designed for the current level of demand, resulting in an increased number of “bottlenecks” which increase costs to consumers and elevate the risk of blackouts.
Hazardous waste cleanup, at D, basically means superfund and other toxic sites, with possibly over 11,000 sites; “redevelopment of those sites would generate 576,373 new jobs and $1.9 billion annually for the economy.”
Navigable waterways, at D-, basically means barges; a very efficient way to move freight. However, by 2020 80 percent of the locks for these waterways will be functionally obsolete.
Public parks and recreation, at C-, have a $6.1 billion backlog.
For rail, at C-: “For the first time since World War II, limited rail capacity has created significant chokepoints and delays. This problem will increase as freight rail tonnage is expected to increase at least 50% by 2020.”
Roads, which one might think would have broad support, are at D, where “Total spending of $59.4 billion annually is well below the $94 billion needed annually to improve transportation infrastructure conditions nationally.”
School buildings, at D, nationally require as much as $268 billion.
Probably the best is solid waste treatment, at C+, where “In 2002, the United States produced 369 million tons of solid waste of all types. Only about a quarter of that total was recycled or recovered.” Yow! That’s a lot of sludge, filling a lot of land.
Transit, at D+, also deserves a full quotation:
Transit use increased faster than any other mode of transportation — up 21% — between 1993 and 2002. Federal investment during this period stemmed the decline in the condition of existing transit infrastructure. The reduction in federal investment in real dollars since 2001 threatens this turnaround. In 2002, total capital outlays for transit were $12.3 billion. The Federal Transit Administration estimates $14.8 billion is needed annually to maintain conditions, and $20.6 billion is needed to improve to “good” conditions. Meanwhile, many major transit properties are borrowing funds to maintain operations, even as they are significantly raising fares and cutting back service.
At D-, “Aging wastewater management systems discharge billions of gallons of untreated sewage into U.S. surface waters each year,” and the Bush administration is cutting funding.
Perhaps we can all agree that this is one area where governments at all levels need to step up and spend more money.