Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Infrastructure? What Infrastructure?

Sitting in a friend’s car, the heated seats warming my butt, drinking Starbucks coffee. The morning’s Washington Post features a front-page story on the decay of the nation’s water and sewage system. This is not a new problem. Even a casual study of the country’s infrastructure—its schools, roads, tunnels and bridges, waterways, electrical grid, waste treatment plants, landfills—shows we’re reaching a tipping point. In the not-at-all distant future, disaster will strike. The power grid has already proven fallible as anyone living in states where the average snowfall exceeds a foot can attest, having been victim to outages, and the resultant lack of power and heat.

Roads are becoming Third World parodies, patchworks of filled potholes and collapsed shoulders.  Our belief that more roads will ease our transportation woes is ridiculous on the face of it—more roads mean more people and more cars—yet we continue to build, to create impermeable surfaces that allow water runoffs that in turn pollute rivers, bays and oceans.

The imminent failures of the water delivery and sewage systems pose particularly frightful problems. There is already an estimated 30 percent delivery loss of water from reservoir to tap. In some areas, the aquifer is polluted and the water unsafe to drink or cook with. We already know a little about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and have few weapons against incapacitating viruses. As the sewage system fails and further infects the environment, we run a serious risk of epidemic illness and infection borne by water or, as in the plague years of the Middle Ages, rats and attendant vermin. It’s estimated that in larger cities such as New York, there are nine rates per single human inhabitant, and that population is not simply growing, it is exploding.

In brief, what is happening is that the system is getting away from us.  We use too much and pay too little. In an editorial following the August, 2008, collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota, Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation, wrote: “Age and heavy use are by no means isolated conditions. According to a report card released in 2005 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 160,570 bridges, or just over one-quarter of the nation's 590,750-bridge inventory, were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The nation's bridges are being called upon to serve a population that has grown from 200 million to over 300 million since the time the first vehicles rolled across the I-35W bridge. Predictably that has translated into lots more cars. American commuters now spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, at a cost to the economy of $63.2 billion a year.”

He adds, “Americans have been squandering the infrastructure legacy bequeathed to us by earlier generations. Like the spoiled offspring of well-off parents, we behave as though we have no idea what is required to sustain the quality of our daily lives. Our electricity comes to us via a decades-old system of power generators, transformers and transmission lines—a system that has utility executives holding their collective breath on every hot day in July and August. We once had a transportation system that was the envy of the world. Now we are better known for our congested highways, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains and a primitive air traffic control system. Many of the great public works projects of the 20th century—dams and canal locks, bridges and tunnels, aquifers and aqueducts, and even the Eisenhower interstate highway system—are at or beyond their designed life span.”

What it comes down to is that we’ve overlooked taking care of the basics. We’re in denial about the health of the country as we are in denial about so many other things. And denial, we know, is a dangerous thing, for individuals as well as for nations. We’ve become a reactive rather than active society, which means we will undoubtedly wait for the next disaster to strike before our largely ineffectual elected officials decide that yes, now it the time to repair our (insert choice of infrastructure need of repair or replacement here) before it’s too late. But it already will be. 

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