Infrastructure and justice

March 20th, 2018

What is infrastructure anyway?

The goal of the infrastructure plan introduced by President Donald Trump on February 12 is to create a greater synergy between public and private funding of infrastructure projects. Through government incentives, the initiative seeks to offer a plan where each dollar in federal money would create $6.50 in private investment. In order to speed the approval of these projects, the plan also includes a reduction in a number of environmental restrictions. The initiative calls for $200 billion to be committed to new infrastructure projects, with half of the budget earmarked for fund-matching programs used by states.

The details of this plan are malleable, and it’s not even clear that there’ll be a vote about the specifics anytime in the near future. Even so, this raises a very important question in our public conversation: What exactly is infrastructure, and why is it in need of such heavy investment? Many Americans think of roads and bridges when they hear the term infrastructure, yet the actual definition covers a much wider variety of projects, systems and services than just motorways. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), infrastructure includes everything from the pipes that bring our drinking water, to airports, seaports and railroads, to dams, to waste water disposal, to the electrical grid, and it even includes things like public school buildings. Infrastructure includes the often overlooked everyday structures and services that keep life running smoothly — at least when they’re properly maintained.

The ASCE isn’t optimistic about the state of most of our infrastructure in the United States. According to its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, our aviation, dams, drinking water, inland waterways, roads and levees all get a D rating (and transit at D-). On the brighter side, our bridges rank at C+ and our railways at B. This report card includes eight key areas that determine infrastructure health: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation. The ASCE is trying to correct the direction of infrastructure in America by encouraging long-term planning and better stewardship of resources.

When infrastructure fails

Infrastructure is often left uncovered by the news media and goes unseen in the public eye until there’s a system failure with devastating results. In 2007, the Interstate 35W bridge that crossed over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and injuring over 145 people. This tragedy temporarily highlighted the disrepair of many of the nation’s roadways and bridges.

A 2017 NPR story noted that this particular bridge had already been branded as structurally deficient, meaning that it needed significant repair — repair that had already begun at the time of the collapse. An investigation into the collapse determined that the collapse was caused by a design flaw, not because of deterioration. No matter the ultimate cause of the collapse, it reawakened awareness and debate about infrastructure in America.

In November 2017, corrosion caused an aging gas pipeline to explode in Orion Township, Michigan. The blast resulted in a fire that lasted over two hours and left a 20-foot crater. This wasn’t the first incident of gas lines failing in that area; in fact, 20 other incidents have occurred over the last decade, resulting in more than $10 million in damage, the Associated Press reported. Several of the area’s pipelines are over 65 years old and will require more than $378 million to test their integrity.

In September 2011, massive rolling blackouts hit southern California, knocking out power to more than five million people. The blackout occurred after maintenance on a Yuma, Arizona, electrical station disabled power. It was further complicated by a failure in the electrical transmission line between the stations in Yuma and San Diego. The result was a loss of power — and air conditioning — across southern California, parts of Arizona, and even into northern Mexico. Visitors were locked out of hotel rooms with electric key cards, and gas pumps were unable to function. Even worse, the blackout hit on a day when the temperature would reach 115 degrees, putting residents at risk of heat stroke and related illnesses.

Massive rolling blackouts hit again in July 2017 when high energy demands overwhelmed Los Angeles’s electrical grid. A high voltage transformer exploded, resulting in over 140,000 residents losing power. The transformer was over 40 years old and was scheduled for replacement, but not for another five to ten years. “Any time you are running decades-old hardware you are running more of a risk than running newer hardware,” Bill Powers, a mechanical engineering consultant in San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times, indicating that many of the older transformers were nearing the end of their lifespan. As summer heat continues to set record highs year after year, demands on aging systems put the electrical grid at increased risk.

These visible reminders of the devastation that results when infrastructure fails has led several commentators to remark that America’s infrastructure is “crumbling.” The ASCE gives American infrastructure an overall grade of D+. Yet others argue that these dire warnings are a myth.

A National Review article points out that in 2012, when infrastructure was last systematically analyzed, 80 percent of highways were considered acceptable or better, as were 97 percent of rural roads. Also, as previously mentioned, the Minneapolis bridge failure was caused by a design flaw, and the technology for bridges has consistently improved since the 1990s.

A lot of money is being spent on infrastructure maintenance: $416 billion across federal, state, and local projects in 2014 alone. Instead, according to National Review, the problem is one of focus, specifically focusing on building new pet projects, with all the ribbon-cutting and fanfare that surround them, to the exclusion of more important tasks like routine maintenance work. Maintenance is integral to the safety and security of each aspect of America’s infrastructure. Yet, it continues to be a contested issue, from budget lines to environmental and community restrictions. Unfortunately, it’s too big of an issue to ignore. When infrastructure fails, lives are put at serious risk. 

Infrastructure and justice

Perhaps the biggest infrastructure failure in recent history happened in Flint, Michigan. Beginning in 2014, lead from corroded water pipes began to poison residents, leading to the deaths of 12 people. The aging pipes were made with lead and lined to protect residents’ drinking water. Yet when the city government switched the source of drinking water from the Detroit water system to the polluted Flint River, the water corroded the pipes, and lead seeped into the water supply, leading to severe lead poisoning. Over 8,000 children were exposed to the contaminated drinking water, which has been linked to developmental delays and ongoing illness.

Flint now has one of the most tested water supplies of any American city, but experts say that it’s not yet safe to drink. While the water itself falls within federally mandated standards for lead and copper content, many of the residential pipes haven’t yet been replaced and still contain lead, leaving most families to continue drinking bottled water.

Flint isn’t the only city to face long-term water contamination. Seabring, Ohio; Greenville, North Carolina; and Jackson, Mississippi, are just three of the 33 cities across America that have had long-term issues with unsafe drinking water. Old lead pipes are a major culprit in making drinking water unsafe.

Communities hit the hardest by these infrastructure failures are typically those without the resources to advocate for change. Henry L. Henderson, Midwest program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “We see safe and sufficient water as a human right. . . . It needs to be approached as a public service matter, not a private commercial commodity.” Henderson is concerned that a changing view of water as a private enterprise and not a public service has increased, not decreased, potential risks for contamination. Areas without monetary resources lack the clout to create change, putting already vulnerable communities at higher risk.

Concerns around drinking water beg the question, What responsibility does infrastructure bear on the public good? When infrastructure fails, whole communities are impacted. Lives are endangered and even lost. Infrastructure provides a public service — a road that connects a neighborhood to a shopping mall, a port where vessels carrying consumer goods come to dock, a public park where families picnic. When these areas fail or when they’re not properly maintained, whose responsibility is it, and how does it impact these communities? At the heart of the argument over infrastructure funding is the question of justice.

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