Thursday, February 25, 2010


Infrastructure Deterioration

More on the Great Fall-Apart. One of today’s news links, which I’m sure many readers noticed, is “DoT budget isn’t keeping up with need for road, bridge repairs.” The article kicks off with the truly grim observation by the transportation secretary that “The Transportation Department has a backlog between $80 billion and $100 billion in high-priority infrastructure improvement projects that it cannot afford to fund” (emphasis mine). That represents a lot of miles of road and many bridges that will be repaired or replaced later than needed, and I predict that repair or replacement will never come for a significant percentage.

In the same vein, recently the New York Times ran an op-ed piece lamenting the woefully insufficient amount of investment in infrastructure. For those with shock-resistant hearts, this article gives a number of specific examples showing the horrendous state of America’s infrastructure. Here I will mention one of the best examples, which was that even though the state of Pennsylvania more than tripled its expenditures on bridges, it ended up with an even longer list of bridges needed repairs!

Of course, the US isn’t the only country with this problem. Britain isn’t known as “pothole nation” for nothing. And Japan, which at first glance seems to have a very modern and well-maintained infrastructure, has, for example, loads of bridges that need repair or replacement. According to this article (in Japanese), Japan has about 150,000 bridges that are 15 meters or more in length, and about 90% of them are managed by municipalities. Of those, 121 are totally closed to traffic, and 680 are still open but have instituted weight restrictions because of their deteriorated conditions. Recall that Japan is a geographically much smaller country than the US, and you can see the significance of these figures. Because many bridges and roads were built during Japan’s years of rapid economic growth, over the next decade a slew of them will be up for repair or replacement, and the money surely won’t be there. But bridges and roads aren’t the only problem. This post from last year provided some information on the grave state of sewage pipe in Tokyo.

We won’t make any headway on infrastructure because energy is too expensive now. Only a few years ago crude oil was still in the $20–30 range, which enabled countries to go on infrastructure construction sprees. Now that the same barrel of oil costs three times as much, we can buy only one-third as much energy for the same amount of money. And because — thanks to peak oil — budgets are severely constrained, that further limits the amount of energy we can expend on infrastructure. In a word, we’re fighting a losing battle. Infrastructure will crumble faster than we can possibly fix it.

The upshot is that vehicles will in time no longer be able to navigate broken roads and bridges, and that alone will strangle economies. Meanwhile, when aged water mains and sewage pipes break, the cities they serve will become uninhabitable. The big cities of the world now bill themselves as “24-hour cities” offering every kind of luxury and serving as economic and cultural centers, but when toilets are stopped up, sewage overflows in the streets, and there is no water, those masses of concrete will be hell.

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