Water Industry News

America's infrastructure: Road to ruin?

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, New York

Every morning, every day, an estimated five million New Yorkers from all walks of life head down a flight of steps, into the dark, underground maze of subway stations.

The generally reliable transport system is one of the most extensive in the world.

"The New York City subway system is the miracle of the city in terms of transportation. It's probably the largest in the world," said Chris Ward, of the General Contractors' Association in New York.

"But, by the same token, the system is at capacity and needs major expansion."

A major overhaul and clean-up would be welcome too.

Every few years, things go terribly wrong, like last week, when a heavy storm flooded the tracks, bringing the subway to a standstill and the city to its knees, for a full day.

Pumps to drain the water away from the tracks simply could not cope with the deluge.

"The amount of water that came down was going to stress the system regardless, because it's so old," Mr Ward said.

"But how we end up protecting ourselves from this kind of event is going to require careful planning and significant investment."

Bridge collapse

It was yet another example of how America's ageing infrastructure is having a hard time keeping up with the needs of a growing population, because of lack of adequate funding and upgrading.

The issue of infrastructure has been grabbing the headlines here since the collapse of the bridge section of a major interstate highway in Minneapolis, Minnesota, two weeks ago, killing at least 11 with two people still missing.

While the number of dead could have been much higher, the dramatic pictures of the massive bridge failure were a shock, with politicians saying that "bridges shouldn't collapse in America".

It's not just the subway system or the bridges in which investment is needed.

A few blocks away from New York's Grand Central station, there were scenes of panic on the streets last month.

A powerful, late afternoon explosion sent people running for cover, in scenes eerily reminiscent of those on 11 September 2001.

One woman was killed in the blast, caused by a burst in an 83-year-old underground steam pipe.

Speaking in the aftermath, city Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to sound reassuring.

"There was a steam pipe explosion - there's no reason to believe that there was any terrorism involved whatsoever," he said.

"It was probably just a failure of part of our infrastructure."

Failure risk

But between exploding pipes, collapsing bridges and sweltering heat in jammed subway carriages, Americans are wondering whether they should be more worried about death by infrastructure failure than terrorist attacks.

And there's been anger and disappointment that this could be happening in one of the richest countries in the world.

But after building massive highways and bridges that were the envy of others, the US now invests only an estimated 0.75% of its GDP in roads, for example, compared with 9% in China.

"The American Society of Civil Engineers for several years has released a report card about America's infrastructure and the overall grade was a D, maybe a D+. That doesn't bode well," said Eriks Ludins, a member of the society.

"It's about roads, bridges but also sewers, water utilities, levees - think about New Orleans, and I know that California is dire need of improvement of its levee system to the tune of millions of dollars, (otherwise) it could be a catastrophic failure."

There have been calls for tax increases, especially on petrol, to make money available for infrastructure repairs, but President George W Bush rejected the idea.

And there is criticism of the billions spent on the war in Iraq.

"Our government is more concerned with war-mongering and with cities in other countries," said young New Yorker Michael Murphy, near the Brooklyn Bridge - which was given a worse inspection grade than the Minneapolis bridge.

"I think they should spend more money on our cities and education system."

'Fix it first'

However, Steve Ellis, of the Taxpayers for Common Sense watchdog group, says the money is there - it's just not being used properly.

"More money is not always the solution. What we need to do is prioritise our funding towards maintaining our present infrastructure... rather direct spending towards new construction," he said.

The bridge collapse in Minneapolis triggered a wave of bridge inspections across the country, with reports of some 140,000 bridges rated "structurally deficient" like the one in Minneapolis or, even worse, "structurally obsolete".

More worrying perhaps, is that while there is some headway in the investigation, there is no definitive answer yet about what happened.

It is thought the collapse may have been caused by a combination of too much weight on the bridge because of machinery for repair work, and a potential design issue.

Officials everywhere are telling people that, in general, roads are safe and the infrastructure is sturdy.

But there is no doubt that America's ageing infrastructure is in trouble and some presidential candidates, like Democrat Hillary Clinton, are seizing on the topic and talking about their billion-dollar plan to bring America's infrastructure into the 21st Century.