America’s Infrastructure

Stephen DeAngelis

August 8, 2011

Following the publication of my post entitled Analysts Raise Warnings about the Fragility of Logistics (which, among other things, discussed the disturbing state of U.S. infrastructure), I was contacted by Jennifer Lynch of carinsurance.org who directed me to a post she thought readers of this blog might find interesting. The post is entitled “15 Startling Facts about America’s Infrastructure.” For anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to the state of America’s infrastructure, the facts presented are probably not all that startling. They are, however, worrisome. Although, as the name clearly states, the carinsurance.org site is primarily focused on issues surrounding automobiles, the infrastructure post deals with a range of issues beyond highways. The other thing I really like about the post is that it links readers with articles that explain the infrastructure challenges in greater detail. The post begins:

“The infrastructure of a nation is what holds civilization together. It includes roads, water supplies, sewers, electrical grids, and telecommunications — things without which the world might prove a difficult place to navigate. While Americans enjoy a better infrastructure than many places in the world, the reality is that it is outdated, inefficient, and — in many places around the nation — currently crumbling to pieces.”

That assessment parallels the assessment of procurement expert Paul Teague, who writes, “Procurement executives with logistics responsibilities know, the most appropriate [type of] music for much of the US transportation infrastructure, including the highways, is the blues.” [“US transportation at breaking point,” ProcurementBlog, 24 January 2011] The carinsurance.org list of startling facts about U.S. infrastructure begins with a well-known problem — the sorry state of U.S. bridges.

“1. More than 25% of bridges in the United States need significant repairs or are handling more traffic than they were designed to carry.

“This translates to a whopping 150,000 bridges that aren’t up to snuff. In recent years, bridge and overpass collapses have even led to death. One of the most notable of these was the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, which collapsed in 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145. If bridges are not updated or repaired, these kinds of accidents could become more common.”

Since the U.S. population is predicted to increase, it doesn’t take a Nostradamus to predict that bridge traffic will also continue to increase. Add to that the fact that some people want to increase the weight limit on trucks using those bridges (see my post entitled The Supersized Supply Chain) and you can see why some analysts are so alarmed.

“2. An inefficient, heavily overburdened electrical grid results in rolling blackouts and losses of $80 billion a year.

“In a world that relies heavily on technology for everything from health care to business, losing power can be a big deal. In the past decade, huge blackouts have left much of the Northeast and Florida without power for several days. This costs money, time, and can create unsafe conditions for residents.”

I have been writing about the inadequacy of U.S. electrical grids for several years. Back in 2009, I cited an article from The Economist that noted that electrical grids “have changed very little since they were first developed more than a century ago.” [“Building the smart grid,” 6 June 2009] Of course, for most of those years there was very little reason to change. Capacity was sufficient to meet customer needs so grids simply connected power plants on one end and consumers on the other. But The Economist agrees that that industrial approach “is now showing its age.” The next two “facts” concern the state of U.S. dams.

“3. Over 4,095 dams in America were deemed “unsafe” by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“This means that they have deficiencies that leave them more susceptible to failure, especially during flooding or earthquakes. The number of dams in the United States that could fail has grown 134% since 1999, and now comprises 3,346 dams nationwide. More than 1,300 of these dangerous dams are considered ‘high hazard’ because their collapse could threaten the lives of those living nearby.

“4. More than a third of all dam failures or near-failures since 1874 have happened in just the last decade.

“The rate of failures is increasing at a disturbingly fast rate, as America’s dams age and deteriorate. Can’t remember any recent dam failures? In 2004, 30 different dams in New Jersey’s Burlington County failed or were damaged after a period of particularly heavy rainfall.”

Despite debates about climate change, we all know that weather is unpredictable. One thing we can predict is that as the population increases, the need for water will also grow. Since weather is unpredictable, dams will be required to ensure that burgeoning populations have access to water regardless of changing weather patterns. The next five “facts” concern the state of the nation’s roads and highways.

“5. Nearly a third of all highway fatalities are related to substandard road conditions, obsolete road designs, or roadside hazards.

“The Federal Highway Administration estimates that poor road conditions play a role in more than 14,300 traffic fatalities each year.”

“6. By 2035, highway usage (and shipping by truck) is expected to double, leaving Americans to spend an average of 160 hours a year in traffic.

“If you think traffic is bad now, just wait a few years. Over the next quarter-century, experts estimate that traffic on American roads is going to be much, much worse. Commuting between work and home could be a nightmare for many, taking up nearly a week of time over the course of the year. Also, keep in mind that this number is just an average, and in high-traffic urban areas, the estimates are much higher.”

“7. More than half of America’s interstate miles are at 70% of traffic capacity, and nearly 25% of the miles are strained at more than 95% capacity.

“Americans love their cars, and the roads are clogged with drivers as a result. Much of the interstate system in the U.S. is struggling to keep up with the number of people who use it each day, leading to traffic jams and accidents at much higher rates.”

“8. It is estimated that over one third of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

“If you hadn’t already noticed that the streets in your city were littered with potholes and cracks, this stat will let you in on the secret: American roads are falling apart. With many states teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and unable to keep up with maintenance, this situation isn’t likely to change soon.”

“9. Traffic jams caused by poor transit infrastructure cost Americans 4 billion hours and nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline a year.

“Highways designed to carry fewer cars that they’re currently managing, poorly timed lights, and awfully-designed transit systems all help contribute to traffic jams. These jams keep drivers on the road for longer, wasting gallon upon gallon of gas and hour upon hour of time.”

Facts concerning the future rely almost exclusively on extrapolating today’s driving patterns into the decades ahead. If gasoline and diesel prices continue to soar, those patterns may change. Even if they do change, investments will still have to be made to repair and upgrade the nation’s roads and highways. If there is a dramatic move away from internal combustion engines to electric motors, gasoline taxes may have to be augmented by a use tax that spreads the cost of upkeep equitably across all those who use and benefit from using the highway system. And, as noted in Fact 11, below those expenses are going to be significant. The next “fact” concerns the nation’s sanitation systems.

“10. A study by the EPA exposed the dirty truth about America’s aging sewer systems: they spill an estimated 1.26 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every single year.

“Not only is this a health and environmental concern, but it’s also a financial one. Cleaning up these spills costs an estimated $50 billion every year.”

As water becomes an even more precious commodity, treating the water used to dispose of human waste is going to receive greater attention. Managed correctly, treating waste water could prove to be a money maker rather than mother loser in the years ahead. Back to the highway and other transportation systems.

“11. The United States must invest $225 billion per year over the next 50 years to maintain and adequately enhance roads and other transportation systems to meet demand.

“Currently, the U.S. is spending less than 40% of this amount, which will make it impossible to effectively keep up with and expand the transit system.”

The United States is not the only country that needs to invest in infrastructure. I have read estimates as high as $10 trillion to build out of the necessary infrastructure worldwide to support the global economy. Unfortunately, the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction.

“12. In 2005, U.S. infrastructure earned a D rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers. This was down from a D+ in 2001 and 2003.

“It’s no joke that the infrastructure of the U.S. is getting worse and worse. In some areas, quality of water, electricity, and roads have been compared to those of a developing nation. Major changes need to be made to keep up, modernize, and allow America to remain competitive in the world market.”

The next “fact” talks about U.S. ports and harbors.

“13. By 2020, every major U.S. container port is projected to be handling at least double the volume it was designed for .

“Imports and exports are major, major business for the U.S., and in the future, this isn’t likely to change. Yet the ports we use to do our trading are going to be seriously overloaded and will need a major overhaul to adequately deal with the number of ships coming in and out.”

For more on this subject, read my post entitled Ports Vie for Increased Market Share. The next “fact” deals with the airline industry.

“14. Costs attributed to airline delays related to congestion and outdated air traffic control systems are expected to triple to $30 billion from 2000 to 2015.

“Sitting on the tarmac waiting to take off or deplane isn’t just annoying — it’s costing businesses billions of dollars each year. The amount of time lost or wasted on flights is continually rising, up to 170 total years (15 minutes lost on 1.6 million flights) in 2007 from just 70 years lost in 2003.”

It isn’t just man-hours that can be lost. Antiquated traffic control systems could potentially impact the air freight business as well. Since much of that business involves the movement of time sensitive goods, the financial impacts could be quite high. The final “fact” concerns the rail sector.

“15. Railroads are expected to need over $200 billion in investment through 2035.

“Railroads are a viable, if not quick, means of transporting people and goods the world over — but in the U.S., many lines are painfully inefficient and falling apart. While money is being poured into modernizing train systems (most notably high speed rail on some Amtrak lines), much more will be needed to keep pace with the amount of rail traffic in coming years. Not to mention everything it will take to make rail travel an appealing option to notoriously phobic Americans.”

The rail industry touts its efficiency in moving the goods that keep the American economy going. The industry itself bears a major role in maintaining the country’s rail infrastructure. In every infrastructure area, public/private partnerships are likely going to play an increasing role in helping maintain and build infrastructure. Michael Ennis, transportation director at Washington Policy Center, in Seattle, writes:

“Using private investment through public-private partnerships (PPP), lawmakers can fund new projects, shift risk, maintain current transportation infrastructure and increase value to taxpayers. There are many benefits associated with a PPP. These include leveraging private dollars for public use, shifting risk from taxpayers to the private sector, using competition to create incentives that lower capital and operating costs, and gaining a more efficient distribution of scarce transportation resources. Other factors like public oversight, asset ownership, long-term maintenance, liability and labor costs will dictate which PPP is a better fit. In some cases, these issues have been treated as obstacles and have prevented partnerships from forming. Yet other states have solved these problems and have adopted several types of partnerships. Undoubtedly, these concerns are important, but they should not deter us from pursuing the benefits of a public-private partnership. Partnering with the private sector is one way to increase financial resources and get roads built.”

With the political parties in Washington, DC, demonstrating their inability to get along, we can only hope that a few wise politicians can find a way to work with the private sector to help meet America’s future infrastructure needs.