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Old Tunnels and Rusting Bridges: America’s Creaking Infrastructure

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Engineers say that when the infrastructure is working, most people don’t even think about it. But they recognize it when they turn on a tap and no water comes out, when they see dikes eroding or when they move through traffic. The driver’s awareness of the Autobahn is growing, mile by mile.

President Biden has announced an ambitious $ 2 trillion infrastructure plan designed to pump enormous sums of money into improving the country’s bridges, roads, public transportation, railways, ports and airports.

The plan has met opposition from Republicans and corporate groups, pointing to the enormous cost and higher corporate taxes Mr Biden has proposed to pay for it.

Still, the leaders of both parties have long viewed infrastructure as a possible unifying problem. Urban and rural communities, red and blue states, the coasts and the center of the country: all are faced with weak and stalled infrastructure.

“It’s an urgent need,” said Greg DiLoreto, a past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, who publishes an extensive testimony on the subject every four years.

The 2020 report gave the country a C-Minus grade, a slight improvement after two decades of Ds. Much more needs to be done, said Mr DiLoreto: “It is a terrible testimony to take home for your people.”

Roads and bridges are still in use decades after their intended lifespan. Sewer and water systems are aged and derelict. And a changing climate threatens to exacerbate old weaknesses and reveal new ones.

The Outline of the Plan published by the Biden Administration gives specific suggestions and figures for some of these infrastructure requirements. For example, the plan provides an additional $ 115 billion to upgrade bridges, highways and roads that are “most in need of repair”. However, other projects such as levee systems are not specifically mentioned and it is unclear how they could be incorporated into the proposal.

We looked at seven examples of urgent infrastructure vulnerabilities across the country, ranging from specific projects to broader issues.

Connect New York City to New Jersey

The 111-year-old tunnels used by local trains and Amtrak have deteriorated rapidly since Hurricane Sandy flooded them with salt water in 2012.

Officials in New York and New Jersey have for years asked federal officials to help build new tunnels, arguing that failure of such a tunnel could have devastating economic effects well beyond the region. The Trump administration defied their appeals. Drivers were plagued by delays and cancellations, with similar problems affecting the railways along the Northeast Corridor.

Passenger railways across the country are grappling with a shortage of federal funding, leading to a $ 45.2 billion repair backlog, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers report. The Biden government says their plan would replace buses and rail vehicles, and expand transit and rail to new communities. It is unclear how the Hudson River tunnels could be affected.

Crossing the Ohio River between Cincinnati, Ohio and Covington, Ky.

President Barack Obama stood at the base of this bridge in 2011, describing laws that would help improve it. In 2016, President Donald J. Trump also promised to replace the structure.

Still, the bridge has remained a source of frustration. Rusty and creaky, it has been listed in the inventory of federal bridges as “functionally out of date” since the 1990s and has had bottlenecks and crashes in the past.

There is a $ 2.5 billion plan to repair the bridge and build a new one next to it, but Covington, Kentucky, has raised some concerns about the proposal. The mayor told The Cincinnati Enquirer that it was an “existential threat,” citing the size of the proposed bridge (some traffic would also cross the old one).

Mr. Biden’s plan promises to repair the 10 most economically important bridges in the country, but has not specified which ones they are. “If there is one project that could be considered, it would be,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, to local reporters at a news conference Wednesday. “Hopefully there will be a solution somewhere in the gut of this multi-billion dollar bill.”

Puerto Rico

While children around the world have attended school remotely since the coronavirus pandemic last year, many students in Puerto Rico hadn’t been to class months earlier. This was because a school in southern Puerto Rico was torn to pieces after a major earthquake on January 7th.

The collapse drew attention to the more than 600 schools on the island that had a “short column” architectural design that made them prone to tremors. Teachers and parents have been careful about reopening, and schools with this design risk will remain closed. Children who went to see them are still learning from a distance.

In addition, nearly 60 schools were closed after post-earthquake inspections revealed structural deficiencies. About 25 had “ongoing” problems prior to the earthquake and its aftershocks, the Puerto Rico Secretary of Education told the New York Times last year.

Government officials recently admitted that in the year the schools were closed due to the pandemic, none of the hundreds of schools at risk had had repairs carried out.

Across the country

Large bridges, on which tens of thousands of cars and eighteen-wheelers ride, aren’t the only ones to show their age. This also applies to smaller bridges in rural areas, which have much less traffic but are no less important for the functioning of a community. (In Mississippi alone, officials list 355 bridges that have been closed because of their age or deterioration.)

According to the president’s infrastructure plan, 10,000 of these bridges would be repaired.

Of the nation’s bridges, 71 percent are rural. They make up 79 percent of bridges that, according to Trip, a non-profit group for traffic research, have been classified as bad or structurally imperfect.

Proponents of rural communities say the problems with bridges indicate a greater lack of connectivity – over roads and over broadband internet. (The president’s plan also calls for 35 percent of rural community residents to have access to reliable, high-speed internet without this internet.)

Rural roads and bridges have an order backlog of $ 211 billion. Some of these projects, such as adding guard rails and widening lanes, could make driving on rural, non-interstate roads safer, resulting in a disproportionate number of road deaths in the country.

Jackson, miss.

Many infrastructure weaknesses were uncovered when a heavy winter storm swept through Texas and the southeast in February. One of these was the water system in Jackson, Miss., The state capital, where residents worked with a cooking note for weeks.

The water crisis has sparked ongoing tensions in Jackson affecting many communities where white residents have fled and tax bases have evaporated. The city has old and broken pipes. It doesn’t have the means to fix it. City officials estimated that upgrading Jackson’s water infrastructure could cost $ 2 billion.

The storm also caused blackouts to millions of people across Texas, leading lawmakers to consider overhauling the state’s electrical infrastructure. State officials said at least 111 people died as a result of the storm. It also caused widespread property damage and left some residents with huge electricity bills.

According to Mr. Biden’s plan, lead pipes and utility lines would be eliminated and more transmission lines for electricity would be installed.

Michigan and many other states

When Michigan state officials investigated what led to the collapse of the Edenville and Sanford dams last year, which resulted in thousands of homes and businesses being evacuated and flooded, the conclusions were clear: A historic flood event had caught up with years of underfunding and neglect.

The country has approximately 91,000 dams, most of which are more than 50 years old, and many are exceptional rainfall outside of potential disaster. As the dams got older, the weather has deteriorated, rendering old building standards obsolete and creating conditions that few considered when many of the dams were built.

Housing development has also steadily expanded to once rural areas that are downstream of the weakening infrastructure. According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, some 15,600 dams in the country would most likely result in death and significant property damage if they failed. Of these, more than 2,330 are considered deficient, the group said.

While the Biden Plan mentions “dam safety” it does not contain any details.

Across the country

The country has tens of thousands of kilometers of levees that protect millions of people and trillions of dollars in property.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers operates a small portion of the country’s levees, while the rest is maintained by a patchwork of levee districts, local governments, and private owners.

The floods, however, care little about who is in charge of maintenance, as demonstrated by the catastrophic floods of 2019 in the Midwest. When record-breaking rains fell, levees across the region were breached or climbed, farmland soaked, houses flooded, and billions in damage caused.

With new weather conditions being driven by climate change, rainfall is unlikely to subside anytime soon. And some of the officials whose cities were hardest hit by the 2019 floods are adamant: simply rehabilitating the levees will no longer work.

“Dikes won’t do it,” said Colin Wellenkamp, ​​executive director of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative, an association of 100 mayors along the Mississippi. His group presented a plan to the White House last month describing a “systemic solution” to floods. It includes replacing wetlands, reconnecting backwaters to the main river, and opening up areas for natural flooding.

A plan that merely replaces infrastructure, rather than rethinking what’s in it, will be ineffective and ultimately unaffordable, Wellenkamp said. He is not sure whether his group’s proposals have been included in the Biden Plan. But he doesn’t see any other choice.

“This is a game of loss unless we incorporate other, bigger solutions,” he said.

Campbell Robertson and Frances Robles contributed to the coverage.

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Robert Dunfee