Executive Intelligence Review
This document appears in the August 17, 2007 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.

The Scope of the U.S.
Infrastructure Deficit

by the EIR Economics Staff

The Aug. 1 collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, is the most dramatic and recent event of a process of decades-long deterioration of U.S. infrastructure. To provide an overview of the rebuilding tasks, we present here a snapshot of the dimensions of the decay and danger of bridges, dams, and a selection of other categories of infrastructure, with references.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that $1.7 trillion is required merely to stabilize the condition of core infrastructure. If all the needs are factored in—including new water supplies, a modernized continental rail system, a nuclear power-based electricity supply, and so on, the costs then add up to $8-9 trillion.

Bridges, Highways, and Roads

There are a total of 592,473 road bridges in the United States of which 26%, or 155,144 are deemed "structurally deficient and/or functionally obsolete," according to the latest Bureau of Transportation statistical data. The office of Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar (D), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the House, reports that up to 30% of the nation's bridges that receive Federal funds have been deemed structurally deficient to some degree. Oberstar has scheduled a hearing Sept. 5 on the crisis, and has posted charts for review on the status of bridges, 1990-2006. His Committee website provides data on the classification of bridges by state, with a map for each Congressional District, as of 2003 (http://transportation.house. gov/bridgemaps.shtml).

Forty states have at least one in five bridges in the category of "structurally deficient and/or functionally obsolete" as of 2006. Of these, 11 states have more than 30% in this condition. And four states—Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Rhode Island—plus the District of Columbia, have more than 40% of their bridges classified as decrepit.

In the absolute number of deficient bridges, Pennsylvania ranks highest in the nation. Of its total of 25,000 state-owned bridges, 6,250 need rehabilitation or replacement. In contrast, the state of Minnesota, where the Mississippi River bridge collapsed Aug. 1, ranks in the relatively "good" category, with only 12.2% (1,586) of its bridges considered in need of refurbishing or replacement. (Data on bridges are kept by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics at http://www.bts.gov.)

There are 756 other bridges in the country of the same vintage and design as the 40-year old I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis.

The U.S. Department of Transportation currently estimates that there is a $461 billion backlog of needed road, highway, and bridge repair and improvements. The American Society of Civil Engineers, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials keep estimates on the loss to the economy from poor road conditions. For example, U.S. motorists spend at least $54 billion a year in repairs and operating costs because of poor road conditions.

Railways

The U.S. rail system is a bare skeleton of its past operations, where route density peaked in the 1920s. Just taking the 20-year period from 1980 to 2000, here are the dimensions of contraction:

  • A decline in Class I track mileage from 164,822 in 1980 (already far below its length of 229,530 route-miles in 1922), to 99,250 in 2000.

  • A decline in the railroad workforce from 458,000 in 1980, to 168,000 in 2000—a drop of 63%.

  • A 29% drop in the number of locomotives from 28,094 in operation in 1980, to 20,028 in 2000.

  • A 52% drop in freight cars in use, from 1,168,114 down to 560,154.

In addition to the shrinkage of the rail system, the condition of what remains is also inadequate, as the accident rate shows. In 2006, of 2,903 rail wrecks, 1,043 were caused by track defects.

The buildup that is required should be the occasion to shift to high-speed rail corridors, including magnetically levitated rail on priority lines.

Dams

The nation has 82,642 dams recorded in the National Dam Inventory, serving purposes of flood control, navigation, hydroelectric power, irrigation, recreation, water supply, wildlife habitation, fire control, and other uses. The average age of these dams is 49 years, with tens of thousands of dams over 60 years old. Nearly 30% of dams are classified as hazardous—either high hazard (11,881) or significant hazard (13,549). The remainder, 57,194, are designated low hazard. The degree of hazard refers to the danger, especially threat of loss of life, to what is downstream. (A high-hazard dam can be one in decent condition, but at a site where there are many people residing downstream).

Of the 30,000 dams considered to be in some category of hazard, 3,000 are considered as actually unsafe. The "Report Card" of the American Society of Civil Engineers gives dam safety overall a "D," partially because of the lack of funding available to deal with these unsafe structures. In 2002, and estimate of $10 billion was given by the Association of Dam Safety Officials for what it would have taken then to rehabilitate the most critical high-hazard dams.

More than 70,000 dams are regulated by the dam safety officers of the 50 states. Various authorities have responsibility for the dams: Federal (3,382), state (4,189), local government (16,497), public utility (1,703), private (53,166), and some others. The Agriculture Department has 10,000 upper watershed dams. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' National Inventory of Dams is available at: www.tec.army.mil/NIDpublic

Of the dams tracked by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, there are many causes of failure:

  • 34% fail because of overtopping, from inadequate spillway design, debris blockage of spillways, or settlement of the dam crest.

  • 30% fail because of foundation defects.

  • 20% fail because of piping (internal erosion caused by seepage). Seepage often occurs around hydraulic structures, from animal burrows, vegetation, cracks, and so on. See www.damsafety.org.

Navigable Waterways

There are lock chambers in use that are over 80 years old. The backlog of Army Corps waterways work is well over $3 billion.

Water Supply, Sewage Treatment

The United States has 54,000 community water supply systems and 16,000 publicly owned sewage treatment operations. All these systems are aging and there is a huge repair and replacement deficit. In New York City, for example, there are water mains that are more than 150 years old, and they rupture with regularity.

There is also a need to provide new systems because of the 30 years of sprawl associated with real estate speculation, where housing has been located in areas with no central sewage infrastructure. In the former cornfields of suburban Washington, D.C., fecal bacteria counts in streams and run-off has reached the stage of a public health threat.

Replacing aging urban systems is going at a snail's pace. On July 16, 2007, the United States Conference of Mayors relased the results of a study conducted by the Mayors' Water Council that showed that 48% of American cities are on a water and sewer pipe replacement schedule of 20 to 100 years, and between 18% and 23% of cities are on a replacement schedule that will exceed 100 years. The estimated cost of overcoming the crisis, by making the repairs in the next 20 years, is in the range of minimally $300 to $500 billion.

A 2003 study by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that over a 20-year period it would require between $178 billion and $331 billion in pipe replacement costs alone.

The situation is urgent. The nation's capital is typical. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which maintains freshwater and sewer pipes for two counties outside the District of Columbia—Montgomery and Prince George counties in Maryland—reported that during February 2007, there were a stunning 477 water main breaks—16 per day. Sixty percent of the system's 5,300 miles of pipe is 30 years or older; another 25% is 50 years or older. With its current meager funding, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission will get around to replacing each mile of pipe only once in every 200 years!

Schools

A survey completed in 2006 by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) concluded that that tens of thousands of public schools urgently need repairs, renovation, modernization, or new construction because of health problems and overcrowding. Nearly 20 years ago, the AFT called for a Marshall Plan to upgrade public schools, because as Federal funds were dwindling, schools were deteriorating. This didn't happen.

A Government Accountability Office report in 1995 concluded that at that time 25,000 public schools needed extensive repair and replacement, and that it would take $112 billion to bring existing buildings into conformity with the minimum building standards. The same report concluded that the air was unfit to breathe in nearly 15,000 public schools. As of 2004, 8.5% of schools had exceeded their physical space capacities, according to a report that year from the National Center for Education Statistics of the Department of Education.

In its 35th Annual "Maintenance and Operations Cost Study," American School and University found that in 2006 the median school district spent 7.58% of its total expenditures on maintenance and operations, well below the 9.59% spent ten years earlier.

In 2005, the American Socieity of Civil Engineers gave a "D" grade to American schools on its "infrastructure report card." The Society noted that in 2000, $268 billion was the expenditure necessary to bring schools into conformity with standards, according to the National Education Associaton estimates at that time. A 2006 AFT survey of what is needed for schools, "Building Minds, Minding Buildings," is available at www.aft.org.

Hospitals and Medical Equipment

The decline in the number of hospitals and the decrease in the ratio of hospital beds per 1,000 persons has reached the stage of crisis in many inner-city and rural areas. In 1980, 22 states were above or at the desired level of the ratio of 4.5 hospital beds per 1,000 persons. This is the "Hill Burton" standard, named after the 1946 law, "Hospital Survey and Construction Act"—co-sponsored by Rep. Lister Hill (D-Ala.) and Harold Burton (R-Ohio). Under this law, the U.S. hospital system was built up over the 1950s and 1960s, through Federal, state, and local funding, to have public hospitals in nearly all the nation's 3,000 counties, and have a beds-per-1,000 persons ratio of 4.5 in urban areas, and 5.5 in rural areas.

In 1980, most states were near this level. From 1958 to 1980, there was an increase of 583 community or general acute care hospitals, and 378,000 staffed community hospital beds. However, since 1980, there has been a dramatic reduction, to the point where only three states are at the "Hill Burton" standard. Hundreds of counties have lost their public hospital altogether, or their hospitals have been downgraded to a "critical access" operation, where they receive patients and ship them elsewhere for treatment.

Likewise, the availability of diagnostic and treatment equipment have declined for much of the population. Beginning in January 2007, Bush Administration cutbacks in Medicaid reimbursement payments for imaging technologies began to reduce the availability of lifesaving diagnoses of all kinds—MRI, CT, PET, DXA, and ultrasound scanning. This came on top of losses already under way. From 2001 to 2004, the number of mammogaphy facilities nationwide decreased 6%, from 9,306 to 8,786. Forty states lost facilities during this period, and as of October 2004, 865 counties—one fourth of the counties in the country, containing 3.4% of the U.S population-had no mammogram machines.

Disaster Response, Medical Emergency Services

In 2006, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences released a three-volume report which concluded that the United States emergency and trauma care system is "at the breaking point." A 2003 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that emergency rooms in hospitals diverted more than 1,300 patients a day, 365 days per year. The number of emergency departments in operation nationally decreased by 38% between 1995 and 2005. At the same time, the use of emergency rooms over this period increased by 20%, as much of the population came to be impoverished and without health insurance. The American College of Emergency Room Physicians warns that there is next to no capacity to deal with surge demands of bioterrorism, or natural threats, like the next influenza pandemic.

Veterans Medical Care

The Veterans Health Administration is the largest direct provider of medical care in the nation, and it needs to be expanded, both for its unique mission, and as part of the overall medical base of the nation for emergency surge capacity, as in the Katrina diaster. The VA is now receiving a growing number of wounded returnees from service in Iraq and Afghanistan; also there are thousands of other veterans flocking to the VA because private insurance options have been withdrawn or have become unaffordable. Parts of the system are overwhelmed. As of March 2007, there was a backlog of 600,000 disability claims that had not yet been processed. Of 160 VA hospital sites, 19 were targetted for shutdown. A de facto construction moratorium was begun in 2001 under the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) process, which has had a terrible effect. The recent national scandal of the poor conditions at the venerable Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., makes the point. The number of VA hospitals and specialty centers should be increased, not decreased, and the whole system must be upgraded. In July 2004, then VA Secretary Antony Principi testified to a House Committee hearing that approximately $1 billon a year for the next five years was needed to modernize the VA medical infrastructure.

The Veterans Coalition "Independent Budget" estimate for FY 2008 calls for $1.602 billion in funding for major construction projects, and another $541 million for minor construction projects. On top of this, another $1.6 billion is needed for nonrecurring maintenance, such as upgrades of electrical systems, roof repairs, and so on, to make up for the lack of funding for such maintenance in previous years.

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