America’s decaying infrastructure |

America’s decaying infrastructure

Hal Sundin
Staff Photo |

No advanced society can function without a solid infrastructure — railroads, highways, bridges, airports, an electric grid, and water and sewer and natural gas systems. Past generations of Americans have invested billions, even trillions, of dollars to build these systems, which are essential to our economy and to our daily lives. It is our duty, as these systems age, to fund the major cost of maintaining them so they can continue to serve future generations. The majority of our infrastructure, which was built using public funds, includes the systems which are showing the greatest maintenance needs. On the other hand, railroads, the electrical grid and natural gas system, which have been privately funded, tend to have received better maintenance.

Railroads grew with the country starting in 1830, and by 1860 linked nearly every major city in the North and Midwest. Rail peaked in 1920 when it provided almost all of the country’s long-distance freight and passenger service over 253,000 miles of track. Since then, increasing numbers of cars and trucks, and the consequent publicly-funded construction of highways culminating in the Interstate System, has produced a decline in railroad usage. Railroad passenger service has dwindled and the railroads now carry only a quarter of long-distance freight on trackage which has shrunk to 138,500 miles.

Our highway system, consisting of over two and a half million miles of paved roads, portions of which are more than 100 years old, and the 50,000-mile Interstate System, much of which is now over 50 years old, are showing the effects of age and the ever- increasing burden of more and heavier trucks. And 42 percent of our highways are now rated as “congested”. But current funding for highway maintenance is barely half of the $170 billion needed.

There are more than 600,000 highway bridges in the U.S. with an average age of 42 years, of which over 10 percent are rated structurally deficient, and more than 2,000 bridges in the Interstate System are in need of an overhaul. The estimated cost of needed bridge maintenance is $76 billion.

By far the largest looming maintenance expense we are faced with is for our underground utility systems — water mains, sanitary and storm sewers, and gas mains. There are millions of miles of water mains and sewers, many of which were installed more than 100 years ago and are beginning to exhibit signs of failure. There are an average of nearly 700 water main breaks every day, and aging sewer pipes are collapsing with increasing frequency. Frequency of gas main failures and explosions is also increasing. In many areas the cost of replacement will be much greater than the original cost because they are now under pavement and other utilities that have been constructed above them. This is especially true for sanitary sewers, which are the deepest, frequently ten or more feet below the ground surface. The estimated cost that may be incurred to reconstruct failing water mains and sewers will be enormous, potentially exceeding $1 trillion.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) conducts an evaluation of the condition of our infrastructure every four years, most recently in 2013. In addition to covering the items discussed above, that report also includes the electric grid, dams, levies, schools and public transit. There are 84,000 dams in the U.S. averaging 52 years old, of which 14,000 are considered high-hazard, and 100,000 miles of flood-control levies with an estimated $100 billion in needed maintenance. School maintenance needs are estimated to be $270 billion. There is also a nationwide need for expanding and improving public transit in many of our metropolitan areas.

According to the 2013 ASCE study, we should be spending $3.6 trillion on infrastructure maintenance needs between now and 2020, which is $1.6 trillion less than the present spending level. By way of comparison, we have spent about that much in 2012 dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the 2012 dollar costs of World War II and the Interstate Highway System are $4.5 trillion and $0.5 trillion, respectively. Can we afford to spend an additional $1.6 on our infrastructure needs over the next six years ($267 billion per year)? The real question is can we afford not to? It will obviously require higher taxes, but don’t we owe that to future generations, just as past generations have paid the taxes which funded the infrastructure they have given us? And think of the boost to our economy from all the jobs that will be created.

“As I See It” appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at

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