Saturday, April 14, 2012

Our Crumbling Infrastructure

We Americans today have been a lot like a generation who's inherited our grandparents' mansion. People drive by going "nice house," but when you go inside it, it's falling apart.
Stephen Flynn

An economy runs on infrastructure, and America is no different. Energy and fresh water must be available wherever it's needed, and waste of all kinds must be removed to maintain a healthy environment. Roads, bridges, waterways, aviation and transit systems keep people and products moving. Dams and levees are critical to taming mother nature's propensity to provide too much water in one instance, too little in another.

And America's infrastructure is falling apart, as Pew Research reported back in 2008.
The numbers are staggering. More than one in four of America's nearly 600,000 bridges need significant repairs or are burdened with more traffic than they were designed to carry, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

A third of the country's major roadways are in substandard condition -- a significant factor in a third of the more than 43,000 traffic fatalities each year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Traffic jams waste 4 billion hours of commuters' time and nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline a year, the Texas Transportation Institute calculates.

Dams, too, are at risk. The number of dams that could fail has grown 134% since 1999 to 3,346, and more than 1,300 of those are "high-hazard," meaning their collapse would threaten lives, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) found. More than a third of dam failures or near failures since 1874 have happened in the last decade.

Underground, aging and inadequate sewer systems spill an estimated 1.26 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every year, resulting in an estimated $50.6 billion in cleanup costs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The American Society of Civil Engineers released their latest Infrastructure Report Card in 2009. Video overviews and in-depth looks at each infrastructure component, state-by-state analysis, and detailed budget projections are included at the site, but here's the report card synopsis.

Drinking WaterD-
Hazardous WasteD
Inland WaterwaysD-
Public Parks and RecreationC-
Solid WasteC+
America's Infrastructure GPA:D
Investment Needed:$2.2 Trillion

Unfortunately, the political machinery that has taken it upon itself to regulate and manage our infrastructure has proven wholly inadequate to the task, incapable of focusing on problems they themselves have created, and generally uninterested in taking meaningful action to correct the situation. The long-term prognosis is terminal, and the situation continues to grow worse, as reported last year.
As Congress debates how to meet the nation’s long-term transportation needs, decaying roads, bridges, railroads and transit systems are costing the United States $129 billion a year, according to a report issued Wednesday by a professional group whose members are responsible for designing and building such infrastructure.

Complex calculations done for the American Society of Civil Engineers indicate that infrastructure deficiencies add $97  billion a year to the cost of operating vehicles and result in travel delays that cost $32 billion.

“If investments in surface transportation infrastructure are not made soon, these costs are expected to grow exponentially,” the ASCE said. “Within 10 years, U.S. businesses would pay an added $430 billion in transportation costs, household incomes would fall by more than $7,000, and U.S. exports will fall by $28 billion.”
For those who prefer a visual presentation, The History Channel produced a two-hour special, The Crumbling of America, that presented a cross-section of the infrastructure issues facing the nation. This preview provides a quick summary.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the United States built the greatest infrastructure the world had ever seen, and it played a critical role in our rise as a superpower. That whole build out is reaching the end of its life cycle, and groaning under loads it was never supposed to handle. Design flaws, not enough money, normal corrosion, and decades of deferred maintenance have conspired to break America's infrastructure down.

"We Americans today have been a lot like a generation who's inherited our grandparent's mansion. People drive by going nice house, but when you go inside it, it's falling apart."
The ASCE included a five-point plan to address the infrastructure problem, but the plan consists primarily of platitudes and bromides, salted with a few common-sense prescriptions that have been ignored for decades, resulting in the current situation.
  1. Increase Federal Leadership in Infrastructure
  2. Promote Sustainability and Resilience
  3. Develop Federal, Regional and State Infrastructure Plans
  4. Address Life-Cycle Costs and Ongoing Maintenance
  5. Increase and Improve Infrastructure Investment from All Stakeholders

But the reality is that expenditures on infrastructure are more likely to be cut than to be increased. State and local governments are facing unprecedented financial shortfalls, and the federal government's focus on empire, the growth of the police state, and distaste for any technology not labeled "green" or "cutting edge" hold little hope for common-sense spending plans to get our existing house in order. The likelihood of any level of government relaxing regulations that prevent innovation to bring new solutions to the table are slim. The monolithic, centralized systems are failing, and regulations prevent the implementation of many more decentralized solutions.

Realistically, we can expect America's infrastructure to continue to degrade. Infrastructure failures will become more common, not less, in the future. Roads will continue to degrade, adding to the accident toll and wasting more commuters' time and gasoline. Safe water will be in shorter supply, and dangerous water more likely for those crossing bridges, living downstream from dams, or relying on sanitation systems to deliver to the tap. Air and rail travel will become more problematic, and the electrical grid less dependable. And the costs of failing to address these issues in a realistic manner will continue to increase, in productivity, in dollars, and in lives. On a positive note, accidental agorist projects are likely to increase in both frequency and scope.

The more complex the systems in the area where you live, the more likely you are to be at risk from failure. Urban areas are more likely to suffer than rural, simply because the infrastructure for supporting high-density populations is considerably more concentrated than that in rural areas, and therefore more complex. Loads are larger and grow more rapidly in urban areas as well. This is something to keep in mind if you're considering a move in the near future.

State and local governments around the country bear much of the blame for failing to provide adequate funding for infrastructure maintenance they claim as their domain while actively legislating to prevent decentralized free market solutions from competing against their centralized systems. And the George Zimmermans inhabiting Washington D.C. need to get their own house in order, instead of stalking around the neighborhood shooting anyone they think might be contemplating breaking into someone else's house.

...and that's all I have to say about that.
Author's Note: I just became aware of a competition over at called Fueling Innovation, sponsored by Mercedes-Benz. An award of $2500 in funding goes to the winner of each round. The Global Village Construction Set is a competitor in this round. Please drop by and place your vote. Readers of the Tireless Agorist will remember our discussion of the GVCS in Open Source Freedom.

The first winning project was Printrbot, a 3D printer similar to those we discussed in Homebrew Production is Coming. Good ideas are catching on, it seems.


  1. The line on the "D.C.'s Jorges Zimmermans" was completely unnecessary.

  2. "And the George Zimmermans inhabiting Washington D.C. need to get their own house in order, instead of stalking around the neighborhood shooting anyone they think might be contemplating breaking into someone else's house. "

    Wow, trial by media works a treat!