America’s infrastructure is a crisis of inequity


This article was originally published on The conversation.

The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age of infrastructure development in the United States, with the expansion of the interstate system and the widespread construction of new water, wastewater and control systems. floods reflecting national public health and national defense priorities. But the infrastructure needs maintenance and, eventually, it needs to be replaced.

This has not happened in many parts of the country. Increasingly, extreme heat and storms are putting roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure under pressure.

Two recent examples – an intense heat wave that pushed California’s power grid to its limits in September 2022, and the water system failure in Jackson, Mississippi, amid flooding in August – show how delayed maintenance and increasing climate change are transforming the 2020s and 2030s into a golden age of infrastructure failure.

I am a civil engineer whose work focuses on the impacts of climate change on infrastructure. Often, low-income communities and communities of color like Jackson see the least investment in infrastructure replacement and repair.

Ruined bridge and water systems

The United States consistently lacks funding for infrastructure maintenance. A Volcker Alliance report by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker in 2019 estimated that the United States had a backlog of $1 trillion in needed repairs.

More than 220,000 bridges across the country, or about 33% of the total, need to be rehabilitated or replaced.

A water main break now occurs somewhere in the United States every two minutes, and approximately 6 million gallons of treated water are lost every day. It comes at the same time the western United States is putting water restrictions in place amid the driest 20-year period in 1,200 years. Similarly, the distribution of drinking water in the United States relies on more than 2 million kilometers of pipes with a limited lifespan.

Source: American Society of Civil Engineers Get Data Download Image

The underlying problem of infrastructure failure is age, leading to the failure of critical parts such as pumps and motors.

The aging systems have been blamed for Jackson’s water supply system failures, Baltimore’s sewage treatment plants dumping dangerous amounts of sewage into the Chesapeake Bay and dam failures in the Michigan that resulted in widespread damage and evacuations.

Inequality in investment

The age problem is compounded by the lack of funds to upgrade critical systems and perform essential maintenance. A repair that will require systemic change.

Infrastructure is primarily a city and county responsibility funded by local taxes. However, these entities also depend on state and federal funds. As the population grows and development expands, local governments have had to cumulatively double their infrastructure spending since the 1950s, while federal sources have remained mostly flat.

America's infrastructure is a crisis of inequity
Congressional Budget Office

Inequality often underlies the growing need for investment in low-income American communities.

More than 2 million people in the United States lack access to clean water and basic sanitation. The biggest predictor of who doesn’t have this access is race: 5.8% of Native American households don’t have access, while only 0.3% of white households don’t. In terms of sanitation, studies in predominantly African American counties have found disproportionate impacts from non-functioning sewage systems.

America's infrastructure is a crisis of inequity
Chart: The Conversation/CC-BY-ND Source: Congressional Budget Office Get the data Download image

Jackson, a majority-black state capital, has faced water system outages for years and has repeatedly requested infrastructure funding from the state to upgrade its water treatment plants in difficulty.

Climate change exacerbates risk

The consequences of inadequate maintenance are compounded by climate change, which is accelerating infrastructure failure with increased flooding, extreme heat and increasing storm intensity.

Much of the world’s infrastructure was designed for an environment that no longer exists. The historical precipitation levels, temperature profiles, extreme weather events and storm surge levels for which these systems were designed and built are now routinely exceeded.

Unprecedented rainfall in the California desert in 2015 destroyed a bridge over Interstate 10, one of the state’s most important east-west routes. Temperatures near 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49C) forced the Phoenix airport to cancel flights in 2017 over fears planes could not take off safely.

A heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in 2020 warped roads and melted streetcar cables in Portland. Amtrak slowed the speed of its trains in the northeast in July 2022, fearing a heat wave could cause overhead wires to expand and sag and potential rail buckling.

Power outages during the September 2022 heat wave in California are another life-threatening infrastructure issue.

Rising costs of delayed repairs

My research with colleagues shows that the vulnerability of the national transportation system, power distribution system, water treatment facilities and coastal infrastructure will increase significantly over the next decade due to climate change.

We estimate that rail infrastructure faces additional repair costs of $5-10 billion per year by 2050, while road repairs due to temperature rise could reach a cumulative $200-10 billion. $300 billion by the end of the century. Likewise, water utilities face the possibility of a trillion-dollar price tag by 2050.

Having studied the issue of climate change impacts on infrastructure for two decades, with climate projections worsening instead of improving, I believe that addressing the multiple challenges facing the country’s infrastructure requires systemic change. .

Two items top the list: national prioritization and funding.

Prioritizing the infrastructure challenge is key to bringing government responsibilities into the national conversation. Most local jurisdictions simply cannot afford to absorb the cost of the necessary infrastructure. The recent Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act are starting points, but they still fail to address the long-term problem.

Without systemic change, Jackson, Mississippi, will only be the beginning of an escalating trend.

Paul Chinowsky is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder.


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