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 U.S. 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 12 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."
People 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 choke points and delays likely, says the ASCE report, to increase
the cost of freight rail 50 percent 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
The National Anxiety Center maintains an Internet site at www.anxietycenter.com.
Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the site
and excerpted widely on many others. In 2003, a collection of his columns was
published by Merril Press.