Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hey -- Maybe We Could, Y'Know, Invest In Our Aging Infrastructure ....

From Yahoo:
Driven by high gas prices and an uncertain economy, Americans are turning to trains and buses to get around in greater numbers than ever before. But the aging transit systems they're riding face an $80 billion maintenance backlog that jeopardizes service just when it's most in demand.

The boost in ridership comes as pain at the gas pump and the sluggish economic recovery combine with a migration of young adults to cities and new technology that makes transit faster and friendlier than in the past. The number of transit trips over a 12-month period will likely set a new record later this month or next, say Federal Transit Administration officials. The current peak is 10.3 billion trips over a year, set in December 2008.

But decades of deferred repairs and modernization projects also have many transit agencies scrambling to keep trains and buses in operation. The transit administration estimated in 2010 that it would take $78 billion to get transit systems into shape, and officials say the backlog has grown since then. In some places, workers search the Internet for spare parts that are no longer manufactured. In others, trains operate using equipment designed, literally, in the horse-and-buggy era.

In Philadelphia, for example, commuters ride trains over rusty steel bridges, some of them dating back to the 19th century. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority — which operates subway, trolley, bus and commuter rail systems — is responsible for 346 bridges that are on average 80 years old. Officials said they may be forced to slow trains or even stop them from crossing one bridge that's 1,000 feet long and 90 feet above the ground if it deteriorates further, leaving stations on the other side without service.

A key power substation relies on electrical equipment manufactured in 1926. There's no hope for acquiring spare parts, so workers try to open the boxes housing the equipment as infrequently as possible to prevent damage from exposure to the environment.

"We're operating on a prayer on that line," Joseph Casey, the transportation authority's general manager, said in an interview. "If that fails, half of our commuter rail system would shut down." The system carries 125,000 passengers on weekdays.
The above scenario is right out of the Russia under communist rule.  But it's not -- it's here in the US.

Also consider this:
With much of its 1 million miles of pipes reaching end of life, the mounting costs associated with the repair of the U.S. drinking water infrastructure needs to be countered with innovative solutions in funding and technology. This need was highlighted when the American Water Works Association delivered sobering news in the form of its report, Buried No Longer: Confronting America's Water Infrastructure Challenge. This report states that over the next 25 years the cost of repairing the existing infrastructure will reach upwards of $1 trillion dollars and this figure is only to maintain current levels of service. Other highlights from the report include:
And then there is this:
  • 33% of America’s urban and rural roads are in poor, mediocre or fair condition, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
  • Driving on roads in need of repair costs U.S. motorists $54 billion per year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs — $275 per motorist.
  • Outdated and substandard road and bridge design, pavement conditions and safety features are factors in 30% of all fatal highway crashes.
  • Between 1970 and 2002, passenger travel nearly doubled in the United States. Road use is expected to increase by nearly two-thirds in the next 20 years.
  • As of 2003, 27% of the nation’s 160,570 bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
More on this topic here.

And an example from Texas:

For Hutto and the 1,264 other public school districts in Texas, this has been the year of doing without. Texas lawmakers cut public education financing by roughly $5.4 billion to balance the state’s two-year budget during the last legislative session, with the cuts taking effect this school year and next.

The budget reductions that districts large and small have had to make have transformed school life in a host of ways — increasing class sizes, reducing services and supplies and thinning the ranks of teachers, custodians, librarians and others, school administrators said.

Like chief executives of struggling corporations, superintendents have been cutting back on everything from paper to nurses and have had to become increasingly creative about generating revenue. They are selling advertising space on the sides of buses and on district Web sites, scaling back summer school, charging parents if their children take part in athletics or cheerleading and adding periods in the school day so fewer teachers can accommodate more students.

In suburban Fort Worth, the Keller Independent School District started charging parents for bus service. The fee, which ranges this year from $185 to $355 for one student, is expected to bring in about $1 million, no small amount for a district that eliminated 100 positions and some sports teams and no longer has uniformed officers providing security after it canceled contracts with local police agencies. 

One Central Texas district, Dripping Springs, reduced its custodial staff and has relied on teachers to pick up the slack. Janitors now visit the classrooms every other day, leaving teachers to clean and sweep their rooms on the off days. Off day or on, teachers also must collect their trash and set it in the hallway, part of custodial changes aimed at saving the district $149,000.
The evidence about the terrible shape of the US infrastructure is beyond overwhelming.  Denial of the situation is caused by either pure political motivation or willful blindness; either way, it's fair to characterize it as abjectly stupidity.

We could invest a ton of money in this (as in trillions of dollars), improve the US economic position and help the economy.  For example, we could re-invest in public education at the local university level, lowering the overall cost and developing the workforce of tomorrow.  Or we could improve our physical infrastructure, thereby lowering transportation costs of getting goods from point A to point B from decreasing repairs and increased traffic efficiency.

The problem with this is it's not a hot topic among talking heads in the US news establishment, who seem more concerned about moving from fake outrage to fake outrage rather than discussing real problems.  It's also not helped by our hyper-political culture where anti-government stupidity runs rampant at the extent of long-term investment.   At this point, I have incredibly deep concerns about the future of the US given the current high level of object ignorance and abject stupidity at the national level.

P.S. from NDD:  There are some things you can only appreciate over the arc of time. Well, I am an old enough fossil to be able to tell you young whipper-snappers that our roads and bridges WERE NOT IN DISREPAIR LIKE THIS in the 1960s and even the miserable 1970s.  Lots of money was ploughed into building and maintaining new and pristine roads. 

Now even the interstate highways - once our crown jewel - are full of potholes and patches (not to mention many of them used to have streetlights that were taken down many budget cuts ago).  Major railroad commuter service into major cities was not disrupted by nearly daily power failures, as it is now.

That our transportation system is rapidly deteriorating towards third-world quality is not something that always was.  IT IS NEW AND DIFFERENT.

From the days of the Erie Canal (that made NYC the world city it became) and the state-sponsored railroads of the 19th century through the interstate highway system of the 1950s and 1960s, our political system took pride in improving the US' infrastructure.  Its wholesale neglect is a byproduct of the "government-is-the-problem" political culture since 1980.