Recent tragic events, including the March 12 gas explosion in East Harlem, that destroyed two apartment buildings and left at least eight people dead, highlights the need to overhaul much of the country’s infrastructure. Although New York City understandably captured the headlines over the last week, old roads, rails, bridges, tunnels, pipelines, and dams continue to languish in the United States, due to soaring deficits and political wrangling . Five year estimates to upgrade New York City’s infrastructure alone come to $47 billion.
Although the actual source of the suspected gas leak that ignited the East Harlem explosion has not yet been identified, water and gas pipelines that service the area, and most of Manhattan, contain sections that date back to the late 19th century. And the problem exists throughout the country. According to researchers from Duke and Boston Universities, in Washington D.C. alone, recent natural gas leaks occurred in 5890 old pipelines. The same researchers noted that some manholes had methane levels up to 10 times greater than necessary to provide enough fuel for an explosion.
In addition to monitoring the potential deleterious effects of an aging country’s infrastructure, the overhaul or replacement of works, such as bridges, may be required, due to to old design flaws that could lead to their failure. In 2007, a steel truss bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, collapsed over the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring an additional 145. The bridge, opened in 1967, had undergone recent routine inspections that showed not only typical signs of aging, but also stress cracks and shifts, combined with the lack of redundant truss support, that increased the probability of a total collapse if one of the vital components were to fail. The U.S.Department of Transportation, in its National Bridge Inventory, recommended the bridge’s replacement in 2005. Indeed, the bridge was scheduled to be replaced; in 2020.
A recent National Bridge Inventory analysis by the Associated Press concluded that out of 607, 380 bridges, 65,605 were “structurally deficient”, requiring repair or replacement. “Fracture critical” bridges, a term referring to an increased risk of total collapse should a vital component fail, numbered 20,808. Fracture critical and structurally deficient bridges carry 29 million passengers a day. This number greatly exceeds the design intent (and life expectancy) of many of these bridges, which were built from the 1950s to 1970s during a massive wave of national road construction projects.
Yet engineers insist these bridges are still safe. And city and state governments lack the funding to replace these old bridges. So, for now, repairs are the most likely remedy for the foreseeable future.
On capital hill, talks to upgrade the country’s infrastructure are going nowhere. The Highway Trust Fund will soon be broke, yet politicians cringe at the thought of upsetting their constituents with implications of raising the gas tax, a solution that, experts say, is the best immediate measure.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers publishes a Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, highlighting the condition of roads, bridges, and, dams, giving each state a “grade”, and an overall “GPA” to the U.S. In 2013, the country’s infrastructure received a D+, a barely passing grade indicative of the need for overhaul.
By Robert Wisnewski
The Seattle Times