Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Look Out Below! America’s Infrastructure Is Crumbling

by Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer

The numbers are staggering. More than one in four of America’s nearly 600,000 bridges need significant repairs or are burdened with more traffic than they were designed to carry, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.


A third of the country’s major roadways are in substandard condition — a significant factor in a third of the more than 43,000 traffic fatalities each year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Traffic jams waste 4 billion hours of commuters’ time and nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline a year, the Texas Transportation Institute calculates.

Dams, too, are at risk. The number of dams that could fail has grown 134% since 1999 to 3,346, and more than 1,300 of those are “high-hazard,” meaning their collapse would threaten lives, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) found. More than a third of dam failures or near failures since 1874 have happened in the last decade.

Underground, aging and inadequate sewer systems spill an estimated 1.26 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every year, resulting in an estimated $50.6 billion in cleanup costs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Much of America is held together by Scotch tape, bailing wire and prayers,” said Donald F. Kettl, director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

Fixing these problems and others threatening the nation’s critical infrastructure would cost $1.6 trillion — more than half of the annual federal budget, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates. And that doesn’t include what it will cost for new capacity to serve a growing population.

Recognizing the importance of structures so integral to U.S. commerce and Americans’ well-being and safety, local, state and federal governments already are budgeting nearly two-thirds of the $1.6 trillion needed for infrastructure work. The problem is they raid many of those funds for other purposes, ASCE says.

Coming up with new money to fill the funding gap has become a political nightmare, with politicians and the public trying to avoid anything that looks like a higher tax.

“We have convinced ourselves that infrastructure is free, that someone else should be paying or that we have paid our share,” said Mike Pagano, an urban planning expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Infrastructure is the four-syllable jawbreaker that governments use to describe the concrete, stone, steel, wires and wood that Americans rely on every day but barely notice until something goes awry. Broadly speaking, it includes airports, the electrical energy grid, hazardous and solidwaste storage sites, navigable inland waterways, public parks, schools and even the security to protect all of those structures.

While the federal government bears the broadest responsibility to keep America’s gears turning, state and local governments are accountable for supplying more than half of the money and all of the manpower to build and maintain the country’s vast ground transportation network. States also have regulatory oversight of 85 percent of dams and help fund drinking- water and wastewater systems. Federal and state officials share the blame for shortfalls in America’s maintenance budget. Congress hasn’t raised the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon — which pays for about 45 percent of all road construction — since 1993, nor have many state leaders been willing to charge drivers more at the pump to pay for local road repairs.


The association of state dam officials contends that most state dam safety programs are underfunded, understaffed and often don’t have adequate authority to regulate safety standards or emergency plans. Likewise, the federal dam safety program, which helps pay for the upkeep of structures, never has been fully funded by Congress.

The EPA estimates that the nation is falling short on water infrastructure by $22 billion annually. The federal Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which makes low-interest loans to clean up or protect water supplies, has shrunk from more than $3 billion in 1990 to roughly $1 billion in 2007.

The consequences of skimping can be dire:

  • On Aug. 1, 2007, the Interstate 35 bridge in downtown Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring at least 80. Losing the state’s most heavily traveled bridge is costing an estimated $400,000 daily in extra commuting time and gasoline, said Brian McClung, a spokesman for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R).

    (A report issued Jan. 15 by the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the bridge collapse on inadequate steel “gussett” plates that hold the structures angled beams together.)

  • Steam pipe explosions in Midtown Manhattan last summer killed one person, injured dozens and disrupted businesses.
  • In March 2006, the 116-year-old Kaloko Reservoir Dam in Hawaii collapsed after heavy rains, killing seven people and causing nearly $15 million in damage.
  • In August 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain gave way, flooding major parts of New Orleans. The storm and flooding are blamed for more than a thousand deaths and more than $100 billion in damage.
  • In May 2002, the Interstate 40 bridge near Webbers Falls, Okla., collapsed into the Arkansas River, killing 14 people.

Despite urgent calls to prevent more tragedy from failed infrastructure, politicians and voters have signaled they are gun-shy of new taxes. After the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge, Minnesota politicians failed to agree to a statewide transportation package, putting off to the 2008 legislative session more debate over a proposed 5-cent hike in the state’s gasoline tax. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) twice vetoed gas-tax hikes before the bridge fell.

Read the full report at


This article was excerpted from “State of the States 2008,”’s annual report on significant state policy developments and trends released Jan. 16. In parentheses are any news updates since the report was sent to the printer. You can order a print copy here, while supplies last.Or register for a PDF version here

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