Monday, November 30, 2015         


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U.S. infrastructure's decay is alarming

By Richard Brill


America's infrastructure is crumbling.

The condition of highways, tunnels, dams and levees is so serious that it has long caused engineers to sound the alarm, mostly in vain.

"The crumbling state of our infrastructure poses a real threat to public safety and the nation's economy," wrote Bill Marcuson, president of the American Society Of Civil Engineers, in 2007. "Financing the urgently needed repairs must become a priority for our nation's leaders."

From the 1930s to 1960s the U.S. invested heavily to build the greatest infrastructure in history, which helped our rise to superpower status.

In 1960 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office, more than 12 percent of the U.S. budget was spent on infrastructure. Today it is only about 2.5 percent. Meanwhile China, India and Europe spend 9 percent, 8 percent and 5 percent respectively.

ASCE issues a yearly report card that grades components of our infrastructure. The latest includes grades of D or D- for decaying highways, bridges, dams, levees, waste systems, potable water, schools and the electrical grid.

Virtually every aspect of our country's infrastructure is reaching the end of its 50-year design life.

ASCE estimates that it will require $2.2 trillion over five years to bring the infrastructure grade from D to B. Yet only 9 percent of the February 2009 stimulus package was earmarked for infrastructure.

In Hawaii, as in other states, we have potholed roads, deteriorating highways and insufficient harbor facilities.

Of Hawaii's bridges, 38 percent are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Raw sewage flows in bursting sewer pipes to discharge into coastal waters despite decades of EPA warnings. Our school have crumbling buildings, leaky roofs and antiquated equipment.

A report released in July by the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs says the state and counties will need to spend $14.3 billion on critical infrastructure over the next six years.

This includes more than $2.6 billion for water and the environment, the bulk of it to repair Oahu's aging sewer system. Transportation will require $7.8 billion, including more than $3 billion for the rail system. Major renovations at public schools and new construction at the University of Hawaii will require $3.7 billion.

The nation's electrical grid is one of the most critical elements of its infrastructure. Transmission lines and towers are increasingly vulnerable as they age. There have been major blackouts affecting millions of people such as the disaster that befell the Northeast in 2003 when a small electrical fault tripped circuit breakers and plunged the area into darkness.

If climate change produces the kind of severe weather that is forecast for the future, what was a 100-year event in 2000 could well be a 10-year event in 2050. That will put all of our aging infrastructure under even more stress.

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