Across US, Infrastructure Is Crumbling

October 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Trail Boss News

Good time to make sure that you have ample staples and other needed items just in case your city, state or county¬† supplied services go down. SAN FRANCISCO (Oct. 29) — Billions of dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are being spent on infrastructure projects across the country, but as this week’s closing of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge shows, for every problem that gets addressed, it seems like 10 more are waiting.

Built in 1936, and severely damaged in1989 by the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Bay Bridge closed over Labor Day weekend for retrofitting designed to help it withstand further quakes. In the process of the repairs, an enormous crack was found in an I-bar, requiring further fixes.

On Tuesday, a portion of the second emergency repair gave way, sending steel cables onto the roadway, damaging cars and closing the bridge to traffic once more.

Bridge safety is by no means an isolated issue, however. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, more than 26 percent of the country’s bridges were found to be either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has personally witnessed the consequences of putting off infrastructure repair and maintenance. On Aug. 1, 2007, his city’s I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

Bridge collapse

Stacy Bengs, AP

On Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W Bridge collapsed in Minneapolis during the evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

That episode briefly galvanized political will, according to the mayor’s spokesman, Jeremy Hanson. “Congress was moved to act,” Hanson said. And with federal funds, the bridge was rebuilt in just over a year from the time it fell, at a cost of $234 million.

Now Minneapolis is using $10 million in stimulus funding to refurbish Camden Bridge, another of the city’s Mississippi River crossings. Built in 1975, the bridge had deteriorated to the point that it was no longer safe for traffic and was shut down. “It’s a major bridge,” Hanson said. “And without the stimulus funds, we would not be able to do the project.”

For Wayne Klotz, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, any money allocated to updating the country’s infrastructure is welcome. But he’s also realistic about just how much the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act can do.

“Only 10 percent of the stimulus package went toward infrastructure. The percentage was relatively small. The primary purpose of the stimulus was to create jobs, not to improve infrastructure,” he said.

Asked to prioritize which areas of infrastructure he thinks need immediate attention, Klotz laughed.

“It’s kind of like if your kid comes home with a report card with straight D’s. Which subject do you start with? Take your pick. We’ve followed a ‘patch and pray’ method of infrastructure maintenance in this country. We don’t have a single category that has a passing grade.”

President Barack Obama recently described the Recovery Act as “the largest investment in the nation’s infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System.” The stimulus plan targets “shovel ready” programs, those that don’t require new permits or exhaustive planning. As a result, Klotz said, the approach provides much needed maintenance, but still misses the bigger mark.

“Back in the ’50s, ’60s and even the first part of the 1970s, the percentage of money we used to spend on infrastructure was 5 to 7 percent of the budget,” Klotz said. “We built the best infrastructure system in the world. Now, we’re lucky if we spend 1 to 2 percent.”

California is one state looking to take full advantage of the Recovery Act money. The nation’s leading recipient of stimulus dollars, California recently applied for a $4.7 billion allocation to help pay for a high-speed rail system. That money would be in addition to the billions it is already using to rebuild roads, airports, existing rail lines and, yes, bridges.

But Ross McKeown, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency charged with planning and financing infrastructure projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, said California’s stimulus funds are not sufficient to meet the challenges that drastically falling revenues and neglected infrastructure maintenance have brought.

“The stimulus is a one-time, stop-gap measure that doesn’t come close to solving the larger issue,” McKeown said. “Really, it’s just a drop in the bucket.”

As Klotz sees it, such steps are vital if we intend to see our economy thrive in the future. “Transportation is our economy,” he said. “If our transportation system doesn’t work, our economy doesn’t work.”

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