Aging infrastructure comes along with an aging demographic

If you have been keeping awake as the talking heads drone on, you have probably heard of America’s problem with aging infrastructure. After all, we have had the levees break in New Orleans. We have had a bridge collapse in Minnesota. We have a major dam threatening to blow in Kentucky. Since all of these problems are related in one way or another to America’s aging infrastructure you ought to be dimly aware that the problem exists. But I don’t think most people know how bad the problem really is.

In order to understand the scale of the problem, you need to understand that the reason that so much of America’s infrastructure is reaching old age all at once is similar to the cause of America’s baby boom generation. In the years following World War II, America got busy doing all sorts of things. Not only did the Greatest Generation produce one heck of a baby boom, but they also built much of America’s infrastructure. And lot of that infrastructure is going to start failing at the same time the baby boomers start to retire.

The scale of this problem is obscured by the fact that the experts discovered some kind of design flaw in everything major that has failed so far. I think that this gives people the impression that the only thing we have to worry about is the dodgy work. But while the poorly designed infrastructure will be the first to fail, everything is going to fail in the long run. And given that so much of America’s infrastructure was built within a couple decades after World War II, quite a lot of it is going to need to be rebuilt all in a similar time period. The challenge for my generation will be to duplicate the Greatest Generation’s construction feats while supporting Baby Boomers’ retirement. On top of all that, we will be dealing with increased environmental and labor regulations.

Naturally, the optimists of this world will argue that this should be very doable. After all, the Greatest Generation raised the Baby Boomers and built all of the infrastructure that we are going to have to rebuild. What is so different about handling the Baby Boomers’ retirement and rebuilding the old infrastructure with all the new technology available to us?

My short and snarky answer is that the Baby Boomers couldn’t vote when they were kids. Now they can, and they are going to want all kinds of goodies from the taxpayer. A wealthy Baby Boomer requires more government funds than a welfare mom on crack.

But I will leave the analysis of the likely burdens of the Baby Boomers’ retirement for some other time. Right now, I would like to focus on the scope of the problem that our aging infrastructure presents.

For starters, there are the bridges. The average age of the bridges in this country is a little over 40 years old. This is why so many bridges are failing to make the grade….

Of the country’s nearly 600,000 bridges, 26% were found structurally deficient or “functionally obsolete” in a 2006 U.S. Department of Transportation report. The condition of heavily used urban bridges like the one that collapsed this week is even worse: one in three are classified as aging or unable to accommodate modern vehicle weights and traffic volume.

Ironically enough, this is one area were things have been getting better. As The American Society of Civil Engineers reports…..

As of 2003, 27.1% of the nation’s bridges (160,570) were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, an improvement from 28.5% in 2000. In fact, over the past 12 years, the number of bridge deficiencies has steadily declined from 34.6% in 1992 to 27.1% in 2003. The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) strategic plan states that by 2008, less than 25% of the nation’s bridges should be classified as deficient. If that goal were met, 1 in 4 bridges in the nation would still be deficient. There were 590,750 bridges in the United States in 2000; however, one in three urban bridges (31.2% or 43,189) was classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, much higher than the national average. In contrast, 25.6% (118,381) of rural bridges were classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

While this is a positive trend, I don’t think that you will see this trend last very long. Most of the time only the deficient parts are rebuilt on major bridges, the rest of the bridge is left as is. A good example of this would be the repairs that they were doing on the bridge in Minnesota that collapsed. I don’t mean to imply that most bridge repair work misses the real problem. I just want to point out that there are often aging structural members even in refurbished bridges. If the bridges are being properly inspected, it is only a matter of time before those aging structural members put those bridges back in the deficient category. At the same time, your newer bridge stock is aging its way into the deficient category. In other words, there is a coming tidal wave of bridge repair work that is going to make it hard to keep this trend positive.

But the bridge situation is relatively good compared to the dam situation. For one thing, the average age of the dams in this country is higher than the average age of America’s bridges. Besides, more people worry about the bridges that they drive over than worry about the dams they live under. The fact that most people don’t worry about dams results in a shortfall of spending. This is why the problem with dams in this country has been getting steadily worse. As The American Society of Civil Engineers Reports….

The number of high-hazard potential dams (dams whose failure would cause loss of human life) is increasing dramatically. Since 1998, the number of high-hazard-potential dams has increased from 9,281 to 10,213, with 1,046 in North Carolina alone. As downstream land development increases, so will the number of high-hazard potential dams. As these dams often require major repair to accommodate more stringent inspection, maintenance and design standards, financial support for state dam safety programs must keep pace.

Even more alarming, states presently report more than 3,500 “unsafe” dams, which have deficiencies that leave them more susceptible to failure. Many states have large numbers of unsafe dams, including Pennsylvania (725), New Jersey (583), and New Hampshire (357). Many state agencies do not report statistics on unsafe dams; therefore the actual number is potentially much higher.

It seems to me that some government officials take a rather cavalier attitude towards dam safety. Take this quote for example…

Emergency planning has been set in motion as a result of similar circumstances at Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky, upriver on the Cumberland. Lowering the level of the lake behind Wolf Creek reduced leaking there, and the same has been true at Center Hill.

The panel’s report paints a grim picture of eroding limestone with sinkholes or other gaps under and around the more-than-55-year-old Center Hill Dam. Still, a panel member advised common sense rather than panic, considering the close eye that is being kept on the dam.

“It’s like when you get on an airplane and they tell you to look for the exit so you know what direction you have to go in case something goes wrong,” said panel member James Talbot, an engineering consultant who lives in St. Leonard, Md. “People downstream should be aware and watching. They should have an escape route figured out ahead of time. If they did all those things, you could say they are quite safe.”

Dam failure takes a while to develop and produces some obvious signs first, Talbot said, including plumes of muddy water in the river that Corps officials say they watch for around the clock.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find that very reassuring. Maybe if I could get a guarantee that roads would be empty when I wanted to use them I would feel a little better. But can you imagine the traffic if everyone tried to get out at once?

By the way this is what Popular Mechanics says about the Wolf Creek Dam….

Seepage through the numerous holes that have been discovered in the foundation of Kentucky’s 55-year-old Wolf Creek Dam put it in danger of failing. In a worst-case scenario, the mile-long structure, which holds back the largest manmade reservoir east of the Mississippi, would release a wall of water, inundating towns and cities downstream along the Cumberland River, including Nashville. The warning was sounded last January, after engineers were forced to drop the dam’s water level to avoid a potential disaster.

But even dams are in relatively good shape compared to the electrical grid. This quote from an essay in Physics Today says it all….

The power delivery system is largely based on technology developed in the 1950s or earlier and installed as much as 50 years ago. The strain on this aging system is beginning to show, particularly as consumers ask it to do things it was not designed to do. Energy transmission has been further complicated by efforts to deregulate power generation and by the confusion arising from the overlapping jurisdictional authority of federal and state regulators. Among the numerous challenges facing the electricity industry are the rapid increase in wholesale transactions between such entities as independent power producers and distribution utilities; increasing grid congestion; continuing low levels of infrastructure investment; the application of technology to allow more options for consumers; the growing need for better grid security; and the precision power requirements of a digital society.

An additional and significant stress on the North American power delivery system results from the discrepancy between the growth in demand for power and the expansion of the delivery system to meet that demand. From 1988 to 1998, US electricity demand rose by nearly 30% while the transmission network’s capacity grew by only 15%. In its Electricity Technology Roadmap: 2003 Summary and Synthesis, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) anticipates that the disparity will further increase during the period 1999−2009: The institute projects demand to grow by 20% and system capacity to increase by just 3.5%.

In the 1990s, capital expenditures of the US electricity sector were about 12% of total revenues. That life− support level of investment, about half the historic average, was previously approached only during the depths of the Great Depression and World War II, times when private investment was generally very low. Such low levels of investment are dangerous and unacceptable. Moreover, a large share of the investment during the 1990s was in power generation rather than improvements in the power−delivery infrastructure. That period of low investment saw the economic cost of power disturbances, from minor blips to major outages, grow to roughly $100 billion per year in the US, according to an EPRI survey of key industries. In other words, for every dollar spent on electricity, consumers are spending at least 50 cents on other goods and services to cover the costs of power failures.

I would like to add that a lot of linesmen out there are seriously worried by this problem. This quote is pretty typical of the sentiment amongst linesmen as I have observed it…

I work for a medium sized electric utility in the west and I can tell you first hand how weak and ratty the executives have allowed the system to become. The name of the utility game has now become ‘defer maintenance to artificially inflate the price of your stock and pay your executives large salaries with massive stock options.’

In the old days we had over 250 guys in construction and maintenance staying on top of pole change outs, system upgrades, prescribed maintenance, etc. Now we have under 80 employees in that department and the system has doubled in size. The company, as most electric utilities have done, now depends on contractors to do the work, mostly to get away from paying for pensions and health care. Contractors that will leave in a moments notice for a better deal and more money.

Recently we had a flood in our main SCADA control office (because no one cleaned the silted over storm drains for years!) and most of the entire system for a city of a million people was off for about 12 hours. When it came back up our protective relays were out and the power kept going on and off. A large defense contractor, who makes cruise, tomahawk, maverick and other missiles for our military had to shut down production and send over 6,000 workers home because the power could not stay on.

And of course we can not talk about the Electrical Grid without talking about the problems with water and sewer. But I don’t want overload you with information. It is sufficient to say that more and more sewage is being dumped into the rivers untreated. More and more municipal water is being lost to leaking pipes.

We could stay on this subject for hours. Our schools, hospitals, and other institutional building are rapidly aging (an area where I have some personal experience). The pipelines that carry our energy are aging. Our railroads and other forms of transit are having increasing troubles. And I could go on and on.

But the basic problem that the US has is that prosperity of the last twenty years or so was based on two illusions. The first illusion was the refusal to face the likely future costs of present entitlement programs. The second illusion was the failure to invest adequately in infrastructure and calling that cost savings instead of capital stock depletion. These two illusions are going to cost America big time in the next twenty years.

3 Responses to “Aging infrastructure comes along with an aging demographic”

  1. […] Originally posted over at Ape Man If you have been keeping awake as the talking heads drone on, you have probably heard of America’s problem with aging infrastructure. After all, we have had the levees break in New Orleans. We have had a bridge collapse in Minnesota. We have a major dam threatening to blow in Kentucky. Since all of these problems are related in one way or another to America’s aging infrastructure you ought to be dimly aware that the problem exists. But I don’t think most people know how bad the problem really is. […]

  2. […] In the next few decades, America has to spend trillions of dollars on infrastructure just to maintain our current living standards. How will we fund such investments? How will we mange such investments? How will we insure that we get good value for the money? […]

  3. […] I don’t think most people appreciate how devastating the shrinking work force is going to be because they think that all parts of the work force will shrink at the same rate. Thus they imagine the work force of the future as being a smaller version of the one we have now. But it is not going to work out that way. It will be a long time before our stock of trained IT workers depletes significantly. But our stock of people trained in the construction trades is going to all but disappear in the next 10 to 20 years. Given the state of our infrastructure, that is going to cause big problems down the road. […]

Leave a Reply