The Interstate Highway System turned 50 last year, but the government neglected to give the system a much-needed birthday present. The government at all levels consistently underfunds infrastructure projects, from dams, bridges, and highways to aviation, railroads, and water systems. The tragic collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis was a wake up call to pay attention to our decaying infrastructure.
But really, this bridge is the third wake up call for the United States to reevaluate how we treat critical infrastructure. The first was 9/11, which showed us that infrastructure is vulnerable to terrorism. Hurricane Katrina was a second wake up call, which showed us that infrastructure is vulnerable to natural disasters. This time, we know that infrastructure is vulnerable to use, age, and neglect.
Maintenance on highways, bridges, dams, and water treatment systems is a convenient place to cut corners when politicians need to appear tough on spending, since the results of routine upkeep are not flashy. But perpetual underfunding and deferred maintenance accelerates structural decay and contributes to disasters, as in the cases of the New Orleans levees or Minneapolis bridge. It’s time to make planes, trains, and automobiles safe again and restore the jewels of American ingenuity and engineering.
Our bridges are crumbling.
- 590,750:Number of bridges in the United States.
- 160,570: Number of bridges in the United States rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete* as of 2003.
Federal, local, and state governments would rather cut corners on infrastructure spending than fund basic maintenance.
- 2: Number of times Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed legislation that would have raised the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation maintenance needs.
- 90: Percentage of the interstate highway budget that comes from the federal government.
- $1.6 trillion: Total investment needed to fix all infrastructure deficiencies as of 2005.
- $7.3 billion: Cost per year to prevent further deterioration of all bridge deficiencies.
And it’s not just bridges. The 50-year-old interstate highway system is decaying and in need of modernization, too.
- 181 million: Population in 1960.
- 74 million: Vehicles registered in 1960.
- 296 million: Population in 2005.
- 247.7 million: Vehicles registered in 2005.
Funding levels aren’t even adequate for basic maintenance.
$75.9 billion to $92 billion:
Estimated annual spending needed at all levels of government to maintain highway system.
- $106.9 billion to $125.6 billion: Estimated annual spending at all levels of government to improve highway system.
- $59.4 billion: Annual amount currently spent on highway maintenance by all levels of government.
And it’s not just bridges and roads. Infrastructure of all types faces neglect and funding shortfalls.
- $390 billion: 2002 EPA estimate of investment over the next 20 years needed to replace existing wastewater treatment systems and build new ones to meet increasing demand.
- $151 billion: 2001 EPA estimate of investment over the next 20 years needed to repair, replace, and upgrade the nation’s 55,000 community drinking water systems to protect public health.
- $6.1 billion: Estimated cost of maintenance backlog in the National Park System (2005).
- $16 billion: Cost over the next three years, in addition to the $35 billion already spent, to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system.
- 80: Percentage of locks maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that will be functionally obsolete by 2020.
And just for comparison’s sake, here’s another budget figure:
U.S. Census Bureau
Federal Highway Administration
American Society of Civil Engineers, Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
Congressional Budget Office
The New York Times
*According to the Federal Highway Administration’s 2006 “Status of the Nation’s Highways, Bridges, and Transit: 2006 Conditions and Performance,” structural deficiencies are characterized by deteriorated conditions of significant bridge elements and reduced load-carrying capacity. Functional obsolescence is a function of the geometrics of the bridge not meeting current design standards.