Some US sewage systems are more than 100 years old



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Little action as some 160,000 US bridges
are considered to be structurally deficient

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

10 October 2007: In a well-publicized 2005 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) concluded that 27 per cent of the almost 600,000 bridges in the US are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.  The report estimated that it would cost US $9 billion annually for 20 years to fix the bridges alone. The collapse of a major bridge in Minneapolis in August 2007, which underscored the warnings of the ASCE study, was only the latest high-profile infrastructure failure in the US.

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In July, a 100-year-old steam pipe burst in New York City, killing one person and creating havoc in midtown Manhattan.  New Orleans is still struggling to rebuild after levees failed during Hurricane Katrina two years ago.  The 2003 failure of the Silver Lake Dam in Michigan caused over US $100 million in damage. 

Many bridges, sewers, wastewater facilities, and other infrastructure in the US were built during the great suburban expansion of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.  They were not built to last longer than 50 years, and are now approaching the end of their life spans.

Even though Americans depend on this infrastructure to go about their daily lives in safety, US mayors are relatively quiet on the need to revitalize the nation’s roads, bridges, sewers, dams, and water treatment plants. 

Mayoral Responses
A few local leaders, such as Mayor Graham Richard of Fort Wayne, Indiana (pop. 206,000) and Supervisor Mary Ellen Heyman of Irondequoit, New York (pop. 52,000) have announced ambitious and expensive plans to modernize their cities’ infrastructure.  “A competitive community simply cannot have sewers backing-up into basements and streets flooding every time it rains,” Supervisor Heyman explained to her constituents when requesting approval to issue a multi-million dollar bond to fund critical improvements.    

A small group of US mayors, including Mayor Don Wesely of Lincoln, Nebraska (pop. 226,000) and Mayor John Hickenlooper of Denver, Colorado (pop. 555,000), have commissioned infrastructure studies.  A recently completed study in San Jose, California (pop. 895,000), initiated by Mayor Chuck Reed, found that city’s backlog of infrastructure maintenance exceeds $900 million, but didn’t identify where the money will come from to pay for eventual repairs.  Other mayors have resisted calls for studies of their cities’ infrastructure.  “We don’t need a study,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in reaction to a proposal by civic activists.  “We need funding.”

Funding
Roads, sewers, and other infrastructure in the US are owned and maintained by federal, state, or local governments.  In 2006, these levels of government spent a total of US $112 billion to build and repair infrastructure – a lot of money, but not enough in a nation that leads the world in sprawling, low-density, automobile-oriented development.

Many of the roads in the US are funded through a tax on gasoline.  With the price of gasoline at record levels, few Americans would support an increase in the gas tax.  Americans have become increasingly tax-averse over the past 25 years.  When former President Ronald Reagan declared that “government is the problem” and “we have to starve the beast,” he helped popularize an ideology that explains why Americans have built more bridges, roads, and sewers than they can afford to maintain, why they continue to do so, and why so few American mayors are willing to do more than pay lip service to the problem of deteriorating infrastructure.    

It’s also politically difficult for many mayors to make a case for more funding for a problem that isn’t readily apparent.  When Americans are told that there are tens of thousands of bridges in poor condition, they ask themselves just how bad the conditions can be since they haven’t heard of many collapses recently.  The occasional catastrophic failure is dismissed as a fluke.  They assume that as long as their bridge looks safe, it’s someone else’s problem. 

As a result of the financial and political issues, whenever there is a sensational collapse like the Minneapolis bridge, Americans and their leaders all say that it’s time to address the problem of aging infrastructure, but little seems to happen. 

In 1987, for example, the New York State Thruway, a major interstate highway, was partially closed to traffic for months because of a bridge collapse, which killed 10 people. The disaster prompted numerous studies and one small bond issue, but is now largely forgotten.   

Future Change
A significant portion of America’s infrastructure is at the age where years of accumulated wear and tear are a concern.  But will it become an election issue?  Over the next two years, Americans will elect a new President, Congress, state Governors and Legislatures, and many mayors.  It will take considerable commitment, bipartisan cooperation, cash – and, perhaps most important, courage -- to renew America’s infrastructure. 

It will be interesting to see if the candidates for public office begin to take responsibility for genuinely solving this problem, or if they continue to delay and propose inadequate measures -- and leave a bigger problem for America’s children.




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Some 27 per cent of US bridges are thought to be structurally deficient


Also by Tony Favro
US cities use demolition as planning tool but results are often problematic
Between 1950 and 2000, the population of the City of Philadelphia declined by nearly 700,000, from 2.1 million to 1.4 million. People and businesses moved to the suburbs - but they didn’t take their buildings with them. In 2000, Philadelphia counted 30,000 residential and commercial properties that had been vacant 10 years or longer. Tens of thousands of other properties were optimistically labeled “short-term” vacants. Many of these buildings were health and safety hazards -- sites for rodents, vagrants, vandals, drug-related activities, and arson.

So when Philadelphia’s newly-elected mayor, John Street, launched an ambitious plan to demolish thousands of vacant and abandoned buildings in 2001, he was greeted with near-unanimous local approval and national acclaim. Philadelphia had joined scores of other US cities that use demolition as a primary community development tool. Detroit (951,000 residents and 36,000 vacant and abandoned buildings), Baltimore (651,000 residents and 40,000 vacant buildings), and Cleveland (478,000 residents and 30,000 vacant buildings) began mass demolitions at least ten years earlier. More