Our Decaying Infrastructure

It seems to me….

This is our history – from the Transcontinental Railroad to the Hoover Dam, to the dredging of our ports and building of our most historic bridges – our American ancestors prioritized growth and investment in our nation’s infrastructure.” ~ Cory Booker[1].

Drive down any highway, cross any bridge, or travel through any airport and you will see the effects of the U.S.’s underinvestment in its national infrastructure – our very foundation is in steady decline. We drive on roads with potholes and over bridges in disrepair. We wait in traffic jams and ride in overcrowded subways. Our airports are bursting at the seams. We need a modern rail system. There is concern that a levee or dam could fail in a storm. Our nation’s economic strength has suffered because spending on infrastructure, education, and basic research are considered immediate costs rather than long-term investments that will ultimately pay for themselves. Perhaps more than anything else, our nation suffers from a deficit of insight – an under-appreciation of the true scope of what is necessary to repair the major problems threatening us as a nation. Our aging infrastructure, which admittedly is only of one of our many concerns, has been permitted to decay.

Additionally, many infrastructure investments are necessitated by climate change. Rising sea levels threaten to inundate coastal areas; increased weather intensity whether from violent storms, droughts, flooding, wildland fires… require significant investment to prevent or alleviate future adverse impact.

Substantial investment in infrastructure, maintenance, and improvement is critical to the U.S. economy[2]. 79 percent of Americans agree that significant infrastructure investment is necessary to repair and modernize our nation’s crumbling infrastructure: roads, bridges, tunnels, electrical grid (renewable energy), water and sewer, railways, air transport, waterways…. About 34 million Americans lack access to basic broadband communications. Highspeed and mass transit availability and air traffic control upgrades are necessary to alleviate transportation bottlenecks.

Still, infrastructure spending is at a 20-year low. Much of our nation’s infrastructure was constructed many years ago – paid for by the current generation’s parents, grandparents, or in many cases, by their great-grandparents. While a way always seems to be found to fund new construction, maintenance of facilities, especially those underground or otherwise out of sight, is politically difficult. Full correction is estimated to cost around $1.5 trillion in today’s dollars and the longer correction is delayed, the more it will degrade and cost to repair.

While there is broad general support about the necessity for repair and upgrades, there is little agreement as to how to finance it. Our current budgetary system creates a bias against the spending necessary to support long-term growth, productivity, and competitiveness[3]. Currently, our government uses a 10-year cash-based budget that does not allow for discounting future revenues or spending in that window.   Congress’s current approach accounts the entire cost of capital investment when the money is spent – the real economic benefits are not counted. This system creates a budgetary bias against crucial spending.

The list of what is needed is lengthy. While incomplete, briefly:

  • Highways: A third are considered to be in poor or mediocre condition – especially those in and around cities.
  • Bridges: There are over 614,000 bridges in the U.S. and about 9 percent are in need of significant maintenance or replacement. 75 percent are over 50 years old and not designed for today’s traffic loads.
  • Airports: The current air traffic control system is dependent upon 1960 technology. Anyone who has recently flown will testify to the obsolescence of U.S. airports relative to those in other countries.
  • Rail: Insufficient capacity for either passenger or freight traffic. Many areas are either no longer or are very poorly served. Passenger support, especially in urban areas, is in need of expansion and modernization.
    Rail transport, whether freight or passenger, has provided a major segment of our transportation needs reaching back prior to when Abraham Lincoln authorized the first transcontinental railroad. Now funding is necessary to not only expand but to alleviate major bottlenecks on systems designed to accommodate only a fraction of the traffic now handled. One quarter of all U.S. rail traffic, about 1,300 trains every day, funnels through a single point in Chicago. All commuter rail lines on the Boston-Washington corridor pass through two rail tunnels under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. The U.S. has over 140,000 miles of dedicated freight railways that annually carry about 40 tons of items per person.
    Anyone who has traveled by passenger rail will attest to the neglected second-rate conditions – especially if they have traveled throughout much of the rest of the world.
  • Water Ways: The U.S. has over 25,000 miles of inland waterways and usually are the most overlooked aspect of our vital infrastructure carrying grain, coal, steel, etc. They carry 14 percent of all domestic freight. Most are aging and in need of repair. The worst bottleneck is in southern Illinois where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers merge and the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers splinter off.
  • Electrical Grid: In need of extensive upgrades and repair. It also is considered vulnerable to physical and cyber-attack. Over 4,000 disruptions were recorded in the U.S. in 2016 affecting 17.9 million people at a cost of $150 billion. Weather-related disruptions constitute the greatest threat to electrical grid reliability; one out of three outages were caused by trees.
    Power grid improvements incorporating intelligence would help prevent disruptions or quicken restoration following any problems but also increase vulnerability to cyberattack. An organized attack against the power grid has the potential of requiring several weeks to recover at a cost of up to $1 trillion.
  • Communications: The majority of users have only a single provider available in their area. Internet upload/download data rates are slower than in many other countries even though the Internet was developed here in the U.S. The typical fixed broadband average download speed in the U.S. was greater than 50 Megabits/second (Mbps) during the first six months of 2016 topping out at 54.97 Mbps in June. The average download speed of fixed broadband connections worldwide is 23 Mbps.
    About one quarter of Americans, less than half of households with an annual income of less than $20,000, do not currently have access to broadband communications, 25 Mbps download speeds, denying them access to opportunity, education, and prospects.
  • Levees: About a third are considered to be in unacceptable condition.
  • Water: whether for personal use, wastewater collection and treatment, or commerce constitutes a largely-ignored problem. Potable water systems in many large cities are over 100 years old, contain pollutants including unacceptable levels of lead and other toxins, and suffer frequent watermain breaks. Public water systems need substantial replacement of pipes, treatment facilities, storage tanks, and other assets. Sewer collection systems and treatment plants encounter leakage or flooding. Over 100 cities are under federal or state mandates to upgrade their water systems but lack funding to do so.
  • Solid Waste Disposal: much still goes into landfills despite recycling gains.

Rather than attempting to solve one isolated type of problem, all infrastructure problems should be considered collectively. E.g., rather than adding additional lanes to an already multilane freeway, add rail transport in the center divider along with a readily-accessible buried services vault sufficient to accommodate all anticipated utility needs.

Concern about American economic competitiveness requires substantial infrastructure investment for highways, roads, bridges, water, wastewater and solid waste facilities, the energy grid, and schools and other public buildings. Infrastructure provides the critical underpinning for the U.S.’s local and regional economies.

First class infrastructure increasingly is defined as sustainable infrastructure. Upgrading of the electricity grid and greater use of energy efficiency strategies by utilities, businesses, and households will control long-run costs and reduce our carbon footprint. Green strategies, including the use of environmentally sound storm-water management techniques and advanced recycled materials, are also being incorporated into the improvement of roads, waterways, and flood barriers to enhance project performance and reliability at reduced cost relative to conventional approaches. Life cycle planning, to ensure cost-effective construction and maintenance over a project’s useful life, is now entrenched in infrastructure best practices.

There is much that needs to be done. The longer it is postponed, the higher the cost of repair.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Cory Anthony Booker is an American politician and the junior U.S. Senator from New Jersey.

[2] Barone, Emily. Rebuilding Our Foundations, Time, 24 October 2016, pp46-47.

[3] Ludwig, Eugene. How America, Can Get Out Of Its Economic Swamp, Time, http://time.com/4515251/america-budget/, 3 October 2016.

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About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Air, airports, Bridges, Climate Change, Communications, Congress, Dams, Drought, Economy, Education, Energy, Environment, Fires, Floods, Highways, highways, Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Investment, Investment, Levees, Power, Power, Railroads, Roads, Roads, Sewers, Storms, Subways, telecommunications, Traffic, Train, Trains, Transportation, Travel, Tunnels, Utilities, Utilities, Vehicle, Water, Water Systems, weather and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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