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Pols fail to comprehend breadth of infrastructure crisis

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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

xpost: Scholars & Rogues

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 12, 2008 at 6:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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