The American Society of Civil Engineers issued a cry of alarm five years ago in the form of three separate report cards on the state of the nation’s infrastructure in 15 major categories — from bridges to rail lines, pipelines, dams, waterways, highways and all other publicly regulated facilities.
Steam pipes under Manhattan are almost 100 years old and underground explosions occur with dangerous regularity, sending geysers of hot steam skywards.
U.S. infrastructure repairs and new projects have been repeatedly postponed as defense requirements and two wars over the past 11 years took priority.
Airports from Abu Dhabi to Singapore to Shanghai entered the 21st century with state-of-the-art infrastructure that handles Airbus’s 550-passenger super jumbos faster and more efficiently than Washington’s Dulles or New York’s JFK can handle passenger loads half that size.
The pride of America’s passenger trains — the northeastern corridor’s Acela — can reach a top speed of 150 mph on a straight stretch but seldom exceeds 120 mph due to inadequate roadbeds. China already boasts the world’s longest high-speed rail network and plans to double its length to 10,000 miles by 2020.
The Chinese bullet train’s top speed of 220 mph cuts a 125-mile trip to 45 minutes.
The 819-mile, high-speed Beijing-Shanghai track was laid between April 2008 and Nov. 15, 2010. Non-stop trains do the run in 3 hours, 58 minutes. And the passenger capacity runs 220,000 per day.
The old track handles intermediary stops between the two major cities and the Beijing-Shanghai journey runs 9 hours, 50 minutes.
Infrastructure has been a key U.S. priority — on paper. On average, since World War II, the United States earmarked 3 percent of its gross domestic product to infrastructure. But this was cut by one-third to 2 percent since 1980.
China and India, by comparison, respectively, spend 9 and 5 percent of their GDP on infrastructure, says U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Thomas J. Donahue.
As U.S. national priorities changed, the U.S. government gradually shifted the lion’s share of its infrastructure responsibilities from federal to state and local. Thus, the federal government moved an estimated 75 percent of public infrastructure costs off its books.
Years of deferred infrastructure costs followed.
Both the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers launched campaigns to rebuild America’s rapidly crumbling infrastructure.
Almost 2,000 bridges have collapsed since the 1960s.
ASCE said in 2005 that vehicle travel on all public roads in the United States increased from 600 billion vehicle miles in the mid-1950s to 3 trillion vehicle miles — with 700 billion of them on the interstate highway system.
In other words, bridges are aging, traffic is increasing and state and local revenues are shrinking. A perfect national tsunami is in the making.
ASCE gives U.S. transit systems a D+.
Below ground, the United States has 2.5 million miles of pipeline — enough pipe to circle the globe 100 times. One-third of them are 40 years old or older and, says ASCE, they don’t receive the care they need.
Starting next year, industry will be shedding 1.26 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every year. And ASCE estimates $2.2 trillion is needed over the next five years to fix it. And no one seems to have a clue on how to fix it before it becomes a national tragedy.
The Federal Highway Administration says 11 percent of total highway bridges in the United States are “structurally deficient” and require “significant” rehabilitation or outright replacement.
The average age of a U.S. bridge is 42 years. But almost 200,000 of the nation’s 600,000 highway bridges are 50 years old or older. That number is expected to double by 2030. Almost $100 billion is needed “NOW!” to handle the backlog of deficient bridges.
Bridge safety is a top national priority, several congressional studies state, but federal programs fail to meet the need. Funding for wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — is at $1.6 trillion and still a climbing priority where needs are invariably met.
Congress, in yet another exercise in muddled thinking, spends only 13 percent of available funds on bridge repair and rehabilitation. Countless millions of vehicles are traveling across structurally deficient bridges.
Another ASCE reports says “as dams age and downstream development increases, the number of deficient dams has risen to more than 4,000, including 1,819 high hazard potential dams. Over the past six years, for every deficient, high hazard potential dam repaired, nearly two more were declared deficient. There are more than 85,000 dams in the U.S., and the average age is just over 51 years old.”
The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates the total cost to repair the nation’s dams at $50 billion; the urgently needed investment to repair high hazard potential dams at $16 billion.
ASDSO also says the backlog of deficient dams is more than 4,000.
In yet another report, ASCE said that by 2020 there will be an estimated 738,000 fewer jobs created “if the U.S. continues its current level of investments in seaports.” And by 2040, these same job losses “will amount to 1.4 million.”
In this report, titled “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Airports, Inland Waterways and Marine Ports,” ASCE concluded that “to accommodate growth in waterborne traffic, future spending needs are estimated to total $30 billion by 2020 and $92 billion by 2040.”
ASCE’s overall bottom line: at current investment levels, losses will accumulate every year to a total loss of nearly $4 trillion to the national GDP and $7.9 trillion in lost business through 2040.
Sequestration in January won’t only inflict major cutbacks in defense spending but in all federal programs, including transportation infrastructure that will translate into losses in trade, jobs and tax revenues.
The Hill’s Congress Blog says “evident by (ASCE’s report findings) budget cuts to our waterways and seaports equate to even higher job losses and reduced GDP, which will only increase our nation’s deficit.”
Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is editor-at-large at UPI and the Washington Times. This column was syndicated by UPI.