Let's Fix This Country

America’s Infrastructure Earns a C-. Here’s the Report Card

Democrats and their progressive wing don't think President Biden's infrastructure plan has gone a bridge too far, but Republicans think it has strayed too far from bridges and what is commonly thought of as infrastructure. His plan doubles as a program to combat climate change such as electric vehicle subsidies, clean energy manufacturing, and what appear to be social programs, such as $400 billion for care of the disabled and elderly. Even if pared back, Republicans refuse to raise taxes to pay for it.

Those controversies have preoccupied the media. Little to no attention has been paid to actual infrastructure — "classic" infrastructure, let's call it — and the need to reverse its deterioration. Here's a quick tour of a few infrastructure categories that should remind us how far Update: June 3: Described by us as "a disaster waiting to happen", the Biden administration has given the go ahead for two tunnels under the Hudson River into New York City after four years of "politics and games".

behind America has fallen and how much needs to be done:

 Start with roads.  Our road network of over four million miles is the world's biggest. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was impressed by the German autobahns while commanding allied forces in Europe during World War II. He saw the ability to move rapidly throughout the country as key to national defense. Once president, Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956 which authorized the building of the
Above: Los Angeles highways
interstates, resulting in the world's best highway and transportation system. But that ranking has sunk to #10 in the World Economic Forum's review. They handed the top spot to the United Arab Emirates.

Nearly $17 trillion — 72% — of the nation's goods travel our highways and roads running up 3.2 trillion vehicle miles in 2019. That's up 18% from 2000. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issues a national report card evaluating 17 categories of infrastructure every four years. Overall, the U.S. gets a C-minus. Thanks to some improvements, at least that's a tick above the D-plus of four years ago, but roads get a D. Their report says we've let a whopping 42% of the road system degenerate to "poor or mediocre condition" by our inattention to the age of highways built decades ago that are now overloaded with five to ten times more traffic than they were designed for. The ASCE assesses that delays and deteriorating roads cause motorists to each spend an unnecessary $1,000 or more a year on repairs and extra gasoline.

Fearing voters, politicians won't touch raising the gasoline and diesel tax, a waste because gas bought at the pumps nicely correlates with the degree to which motorists will use roads and should chip in. Last changed in 1993, the taxes are stuck at 18.4¢ a gallon on gasoline and 24.4¢ a gallon on diesel, which inflation says should be 32.6¢ and 43.2¢ today.

 Roads made of rails and ties  make up a web of 140,000 miles of track owned by the major freight haulers which "host" Amtrak on 21,400 miles of their roadbed (Amtrak owns only 3% of the route-miles it uses). Overall, the railroads get the ASCE's highest mark, a B.

One reason for the B rating is probably the $4.4 billion Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE) that has been working to untangle commuter and freight lines from the city's streets with over- and underpasses. One quarter of all rail traffic in the U.S. — 1,300 trains a day — transit Chicago carrying Iowa's corn, Michigan's autos, North Dakota's oil. In the mix are the region's commuter trains that shut down freight movement during rush hours adding costly delays. One measurement has it that it takes 48 hours for a load of freight to go from Los Angeles to Chicago, and then 30 hours go through Chicago.

The ongoing problem with our railroads is always Amtrak. Profits from the northeast corridor, where the ratio of residents per square mile is 10 times the number along the rest of its routes, are not enough to fund the 523 stations spread on 46 states that Amtrak must serve. Its routes covering greater distances carry about 17% of Amtrak's passengers but account for some 44% of the system's cost. Republicans have long nursed a special animus toward paying for the hand dealt Amtrak by population and geography, while not making equivalent complaints about the inequity of governments paying for roads and much of airports. Accepting a deteriorated passenger railroad system from lack of federal support goes to the question of what sort of country we want.

America's vast distances make long-distance high-speed trains impracticable, and the country's ritual cost overruns often hobble dream projects. Such is the case with California's high-speed rail. Approved by voters in 2008, it is intended first to connect San Francisco and and Los Angeles (380 miles) and then on to San Diego in the south and Sacramento further north. Today it finds itself looking for $4.1 billion simply to complete a segment from Merced to Bakersfield (171 miles), with connection to Los Angeles a decade and tens of billions of dollars away. By the way, in 2009 the High Speed Rail Association laid out a plan for 17,000 miles of 220 mph train routes meant for completion by 2030. How's that going?

 Of the 617,000 bridges in the U.S , 42% are more than 50 years old, the expected life of a bridge. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association reckons that 231,000 bridges need repair at a cost of $164 billion, but rates 55,000 of them — 9% of all U.S. bridges — at the higher priority of "structurally deficient". Over 70% of bridges are rural, and those make up 79% of the bridges rated as poor or unsound, according to Trip, a transportation research nonprofit group. Moreover, the overage bridges were built for much lower traffic loads.

Yet our bridges continue to be crossed by unwitting truckers and citizens at between, differing estimates say, 174 million and 215 million times every day. In 2007, a stretch
Collapsed I-35W bridge across the Mississippi in Minneapolis

of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour, killing 13, injuring 145, and resulting in $234 million in repairs. The Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi was just closed for months of repairs when an inspector found a crack in a main support beam. At the present rate of repair and replacement, it will take 37 years to remedy the problem, by which time a lot more bridges will be added to the deficient category.

Hoping to sway Republican Louisiana, President Biden went to Lake Charles to pitch his infrastructure plan with the Calcasieu River Bridge behind him, a span that's 20 years older than its expected lifespan. The nation's most gridlocked crossing, though, is the Brent Spence Bridge between Cincinnati and Covington, Kentucky. Its planned capacity was 80,000 crossings a day when built in 1963, but it experiences twice that today. Three major interstate highways converge on Cincinnati making the bridge the link between Michigan and the Southeast with trucks hauling $1 billion in goods across every day. The American Transportation Research Institute ranks the bridge as the fifth worst bottleneck in the nation. People dread crossing owing to the tight spacing — its shoulders had to be converted to extra traffic lanes — with the prospect of encountering jams caused by its two collisions a week.

President Obama made an infrastructure pitch in front of the Brent Spence in 2011. President Trump promised a fix which didn't happen. Kentucky Senator McConnell rails about its being "outdated and inadequate" but wants no part of any infrastructure spending plan or tax hike to pay for it and vows to do everything possible to block Biden's infrastructure goals.

 The nation's power grid needs vast upgrading  to give it the ability to deliver expanding wind and solar power from remote locations to metropolitan areas. At the local level, the 2009 stimulus boosted widespread conversion to smart meters that encourages homeowners to invest in or sign onto rooftop solar to reduce demand from utilities and sell the unused power back to the grid. But most important is the hardening of the entire grid to cyber and physical attacks. Those smart meters have added a daunting number of new entry points for the cyber attacks that barrage the grid — one every four days. On the ground, a 2015 inspection of 1,000 utility substations found that half were vulnerable to physical attack, secured by only a padlock.

 U.S. airports are showing their age.  Many are more than 40 years old. There hasn't been a new one built since Denver International, a quarter century ago despite an explosion in air travel.

However, the pandemic allowed a number of airport renovation projects to move forward. Almost every major airport in the U.S. — Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, e.g. — has a multi-billion dollar capital improvement program underway. Miami International has announced $5 billion for a terminal optimization program and cargo expansion. Orlando International is spending $2.15 billion on its new 19-gate terminal.

It will come as no surprise to world travelers that no U.S. airport ranks in the global top 10 and New York has two of the world's worst. Passengers describe Newark's Liberty International (in New Jersey but serving New York City) as "dirty" and "disorganized", with long lines packed into cramped space. Some allowance should perhaps be given to its being over 90 years old, opened in 1928. The other is LaGuardia, which at age 82 is decrepit and overcrowded, but it is undergoing a complete overhaul. Among pilots, it is referred to as "USS LaGuardia". Its short runways surrounded by water give the feel of landing on an aircraft carrier.

Adding to customer grievance is that little thought has typically been given to getting to America's airports, which is where new federal money might best be spent. In Asian and European cities there are rail links to get from center city to airports, a rarity in the U.S. At Amsterdam's Schiphol, for example — ranked as one the world's 10 best — escalators descend from the main terminal to quiet, swift underground trains that run every few minutes to the city's Centraal Station, which in turn is the hub for all bus and tram lines that fan out through the city, as well as railroad access to the rest of Europe.

 The nation's water mains  have suffered chronic neglect. Water lines laid in the first half of the last century have never been replaced (gas lines as well). Some date to the 19th century. Utilities and cities often don't know where they are. Lead is common in water pipes across the country; Flint made the nation aware of the damage lead can do to children, affecting brain and nervous system. Lead pipes were banned in 1986 by Congress but that left in place the lead solder used to seal pipe joints in the lines that connect water mains to houses. That's the case for two-thirds of America's 80 million homes.

Back in 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency estimated it would cost $384 billion to continue to provide clean drinking water to Americans, and that entailed work that would take until 2030. Here we are in 2021 with how much done? More recently, the American Waterworks Association thought the bill would be more like $1 trillion across 25 years.

Compare that to a bill just passed by the Senate: $35 billion to improve water systems, particularly in long-neglected rural and tribal communities. At least it was an encouragingly bipartisan vote of 89-2.

 Dams are rated by the threat they pose should they fail , and one did last year in Midland, Michigan, causing "catastrophic" flooding and the evacuation of 10,000 people. Of the nation's 61,000 dams the number of high-hazard-potential dams has more than doubled over the last 20 years not so much because of their age, averaging 57 years, but because housing and other development advances nearer them.

 The 230 locks and dams along 12,000 miles of American rivers  are largely unknown to the public, yet they provide for the shipment of 14% of domestic freight — $70 billion worth of cargo annually. Particularly crucial are the 23 locks along 200 miles of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers,
A coal barge at the Braddock Locks and Dam in Pennsylvania.

the most fatigued of the nation's inland waterway system. Some locks are over a hundred years old; those where the Ohio meets the Mississippi come close, built in 1928 and 1929.

Tugboats push up to 15 barges at a time — the equivalent of 225 train cars or 1,050 truckloads — containing several million dollars worth of corn, soybean, aluminum ingots, scrap steel, wheat. More than a million tons of commodities normally pass through the 85-year-old lock on the Monongahela River every month. But crumbling concrete and rusted metal often cause breakdowns of the lock mechanisms, causing delays of 15 to 20 hours. On a stretch of the Ohio River it can take as long as five days to negotiate the locks.

Replacement is costly. The $3 billion building of the Olmstead Locks and Dam on the Ohio in Kentucky to replace Lock and Dam 52 and 53 was begun in 1995 and was not completed until 2018. A $2.7 billion makeover of the Monongahela lock and dam was long delayed. As indication of how underappreciated this category of infrastructure is, President Obama cut the budget for the Corps of Engineers, which maintains most of the system, and President Trump wanted to cut the Corps budget for his final year by 31%.

 The nation's transit systems — from commuter rail to bus lines — gets the engineer society's worse grade of D-minus, and that seems apart from the plight of 45% of Americans who don't have access to public transit at all. There's a $176 billion backlog of work to be done, a deficit that is expected to grow to more than $270 billion through 2029.

 Transit brings us to tunnels , which aren't even an ASCE category, and that overlooks the disaster waiting to happen under the Hudson River. Some 2,000 Amtrak and commuter trains log 800,000 passenger trips per day through two single track railroad tunnels that are 111 years old. Pieces of concrete fall onto the tracks, electrical cables are frayed, salt water flooding from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 aged the tunnels with further corroding. Amtrak and commuter trains are frequently stranded by electrical failures.

The chaos of a tunnel's shutdown for months of repairs would throw the region into chaos and wreak billions in economic damage not just because of New Jersey workers unable to commute to New York City but because rail lines from Boston and points north, to Washington and points south, run through those tunnels. One need only remember the bedlam of lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, the nation's busiest, when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's staff thought it a good idea to stick it to the on-ramp town's mayor for not supporting the governor's election.

Drilling of a new tunnel was a $9 billion project that had begun after environmental reviews that went on interminably from 2003 to 2009 that apparently took no notice that there are already tunnels under the Hudson. But work was halted when Gov. Christie reneged on New Jersey's share of the cost.

Since, President Trump asked Congress to cancel $900 million in start-up money for the new tunnel to spite New York Sen. Cluck Schumer's failure to cooperate with Trump on unrelated issues.

Quite a blunder when you think about it. When in 2018 Trump visited Washington's home, Mount Vernon, he remarked that the first president had missed a golden opportunity. "If he was smart, he would've put his name on it", he said according to accompanying reporters. "You've got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you". Right! What was that guy's name, "washing" something? By forgetting his own advice, New York's "The Donald" overlooked an opportunity. It could've been The Trump Tunnel.

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