An Underlying Problem: What's Below Our Cars and Feet

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, April 26, 2008

A crisis looms. America's infrastructure is in terrible shape, performs badly and is destined to fail more often. Neglect, lack of political will, bureaucratic myopia and woefully inadequate funding are the primary causes.

But is anyone paying attention?

We have heard little about failing infrastructure during the lengthy presidential campaign. This is lamentable but not surprising because infrastructure encompasses systems operating at varied geographic and governmental scales -- federal, state, county and local.

Yet addressing public infrastructure dysfunction is as critical to America's future as addressing health care, education, national security and the economy. Infrastructure problems have huge economic and noneconomic costs. They compromise public safety and degrade the environment. Indeed, America's welfare, prosperity and ability to compete globally will depend in part on the quality of its infrastructure.

We take infrastructure for granted. Only dramatic failures, such as Hurricane Katrina breaching levees and flooding New Orleans or last year's bridge collapse in Minneapolis, momentarily call our attention to it.

"Deterioration, congestion and reduced reliability appear across all sectors," asserts "Infrastructure 2007," an alarming report published last year by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young. On an infrastructure report card prepared three years ago by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the average grade for these sectors -- roads and bridges, transit, rail, aviation, and utilities -- was D. Today it might be approaching D-minus.

Consider transportation infrastructure.

Streets and highways are choked, producing ever more costly travel delays, as well as mounting fuel consumption and carbon emissions. It's easy to see why. From 1990 to 2003, according to the report, miles traveled by car increased 35 percent in the United States while roadway lane miles remained static.

Meanwhile, repairing deteriorating roadways and bridges requires billions of dollars. Vehicular wear and tear from streets full of potholes is yet another expense. All those costs add up.

Transit effectiveness is marginal in most cities, as automobiles remain our primary means of travel. Even cities with extensive bus and rail systems have great difficulty financing needed maintenance, improvements and expansion. Washington's transit system illustrates the fundamental problem: money. With no dedicated funding source, Metro faces chronic operating and capital deficits. The transit authority simply cannot pay for all the equipment and upkeep needed.

Railways move freight all across the nation. Yet rail networks suffer from old and poorly maintained tracks, and congested rail hubs delay service.

High-speed trains could transport millions of people who otherwise would clog highways and airports. Amtrak tries to provide decent passenger service, but marginal funding and severe network constraints make trains a minor component of America's transportation infrastructure. "Mired decades behind Europe and Asia in rail service quality," the report says, "the United States will need to spend at least $250 billion over the next 20 years to catch up."

The aviation industry likewise struggles to cope with ever more passengers and cargo, larger planes, and growing traffic volume. "Congress estimates that airports require $14 billion in annual capital infusions," the report says, "to keep pace with needed improvements and expansions."

And while flying may be an ordeal, more worrisome are the utility systems supplying water, treating waste and providing electric power.

Throughout the country, aging water and sewer pipes must be replaced because of deterioration, insufficient size or lead content. Rapid population growth could overburden sewage treatment plants that would more frequently discharge untreated effluent into waterways, posing serious health and environmental risks.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that, over the next 20 years, $300 billion to $500 billion will be needed to maintain and improve America's wastewater infrastructure, according to the report.

What about electricity? Without substantial investment in new generating capacity and alternative energy sources, power plants and transmission grids would be unable to supply enough power to meet surging demand. Much higher electric bills and mandatory conservation would be unavoidable, as would service interruptions and blackouts.

To achieve infrastructure quality, all levels of government must reconsider policies and priorities while collaborating with the private sector. Planning must be long-range and more regionally integrated. Effective resource and energy conservation strategies must be adopted.

Yet no matter how proficient government might become, fixing and expanding America's infrastructure will require trillions of dollars. As the report points out, there are numerous strategies for generating revenues, reducing costs or shifting infrastructure responsibilities: privatization, public/private partnerships, congestion pricing, tolls and user fees, consumption charges, impact fees, and targeted taxation.

But no matter which strategies are employed, American taxpayers ultimately will foot the bill. Perhaps this is why infrastructure is not a hot presidential campaign issue or even a topic of conversation. With the next big crisis, it will be.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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