The 1930s through the 1950s were the golden age of government-backed public utility construction in the US. In response to the Great Depression, FDR's Citizen Conservation Corps built roads, airports, levees, dams, and a variety of other public service construction projects. World War Two shut down the CCC, and in its place the industrialization of the US was advanced, resulting in development of technologies, not only in weapons, but also in aircraft, vehicles ships, and electronics. This served to build as a byproduct an infrastructure that would last far beyond the war years and serve as the base of power that would catapult the US onto the stage of world leadership. President Dwight Eisenhower put a capstone on the development of US infrastructure through construction of the interstate highway system.
Then we stopped. The golden age of public infrastructure development was over.
Oh, sure. We continued to build things. People who used to want to live in the city now wanted to live in the suburbs, so we built suburbs. The US population virtually exploded after WWII, so we built homes for them. And cars for them. We built an energy processing industry second to none. And when we were done with that, we transitioned to the information age. Computers, cellphones, connectivity–all there for the asking. But the difference was that this was private sector development driven by consumerism. The private sector built the infrastructure it needed, but that was about it.
And nobody watched the infrastructure from the golden age as it deteriorated, year by year and decade by decade. That which was built in the 1930s will soon be a century old. It’s becoming imperative that we begin asking ourselves some very reasonable questions. How long should an iron pipe last? A lead pipe? An electrical transmission tower? A piece of highway? A steel bridge? A concrete bridge? A dam? There’s no question that we’re not going to like the answers. But that can’t stop us from asking the questions.
Infrastructure had a couple of strikes against it in the public relations area. First, we don’t like to look at it. So we put it underground, behind walls, in basements–places where we don’t have to see it. But as we’ve explored before, hidden infrastructure can be dangerous infrastructure. And second, infrastructure is boring. Typically, it works until it doesn’t, and there’s nothing more tedious than sitting there watching water go through pipes or electricity go through wires, waiting for something to go wrong. But go wrong it does, often in spectacular fashion. Here’s just a short list of infrastructure disasters in our recent history:
- In 1979, a combination of mechanical failure and human error caused the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant to melt down and jettison radioactive material into Susquehanna River.
- In 2007, the I-35 Bridge collapsed during rush hour traffic and fell into the Mississippi River.
- Starting in 2014, the water delivery system in Flint Michigan began delivering polluted water to city residents. That situation continues to this day.
- In 2015, an underground storage tank in California began leaking methane into the atmosphere. As of this writing, the leak continues.
It’s not a pretty picture. Infrastructure maintenance and repair is expensive. It’s even more expensive if we wait for the disaster to happen. Yet, to this date, we have no political will to do anything about our aging infrastructure UNTIL it breaks. This is a conscious choice that we have made: Of course, it would always be possible to make a different choice. But for the purposes of preparation and mitigation, we probably need to assume we won’t.
Next time: Infrastructure–How Bad is it Really? What I said about ‘nobody watched the infrastructure’ isn’t precisely true. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) watches our infrastructure quite closely. Next time, We’ll review the findings from their most recent report.