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Talking E: America’s Crumbling Infrastructure: An Engineer’s Nightmare, or a Great Opportunity?

September 22nd, 2011

On a daily basis, we drive on paved roads over bridges, take hot showers, turn the lights on and off, and take out the trash. Most of us take these activities for granted because after all, we live in a modern country, not a developing nation. However, experts are warning that if America doesn’t act soon, it will have the infrastructure of a third-world country within a few decades.

  • Citing a report released in July by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which found that America’s crumbling surface transportation infrastructure will cost the economy more than 877,000 jobs, U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, renewed calls for Congress to create a surface transportation bill that provides the investments necessary to tackle the well documented backlog of highway, bridge, and transit infrastructure needs.“Today’s report provides the cold hard truth that America’s economic recovery and long-term competitiveness will suffer if we continue to under-invest in our future,” said Rahall.  “The report paints a disturbing picture of how America’s small businesses and middle class family incomes will be affected by our Nation’s deteriorating surface transportation systems.”
  • For the past few years, evidence of America’s crumbling infrastructure has been hard to ignore, from the devastating breach of New Orleans’s levees after Hurricane Katrina to the collapse of a big bridge in Minneapolis last summer.
  • In 2005 the ASCE estimated that $1.6 trillion was needed over five years to bring just the existing infrastructure into good repair. This does not account for future needs. By 2020 freight volumes are projected to be 70% greater than in 1998.
  • Thanks to soaring oil prices, a surge in demand for buses and trains has revealed aging transport systems in big cities and underinvestment in small ones.
  • America’s aging water infrastructure is tremendously underfunded: the Environmental Protection Agency forecasts an $11 billion annual gap in meeting costs over the next 20 years.
  • America’s transport network is similarly dysfunctional, says a recent Urban Land Institute report. The ports in Los Angeles and New York are overloaded. Flight delays cost at least $15 billion each year in lost productivity. Congestion on the roads costs $78 billion annually in the form of 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted gas. Our railways are old, and America’s only “high-speed” train runs between Boston and Washington, DC, on an inadequate track.

Obviously, the U.S. has invested very little in infrastructure over the last few decades. The ASCE began researching and grading the state of the nation’s infrastructure 10 years ago and determined that every area from aviation to roads to wastewater needs serious attention. To repair all the areas of infrastructure to good condition or a grade of “B” will cost $1.6 trillion over 5 years time.

This should mean additional work for thousands of engineers, if the government allots the money necessary to make these much-needed repairs. Terence O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, says 47,500 jobs will be created for every $1 billion the government spends on infrastructure.


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