Failing to Protect: Saving America's Crumbling Infrastructure

July 22, 2008
Miles of Midwest land under 10 feet of water, a major bridge collapsing to the ground, a flood-ravaged New Orleans – these are all images we won't soon forget. But how can we keep history from repeating itself yet again?

Our nation’s infrastructure is in dire shape. If the past few weeks of flood coverage following the Midwest’s 30-plus deadly levee breaks doesn’t convince you, think back a year or so ago. Just last summer, the collapse of the I-35W Bridge left many of us pondering the safety of our highways and byways. And who could ever forget the shocking images of post-Katrina New Orleans?

If you’re wondering what America has done in response to these disasters, the answer is “not nearly enough” – and that does not bode well for the future.

Each of these infrastructure breakdowns could have been prevented. Take the Midwest floods, for instance. In 1993, the same areas experienced massive flooding that resulted in over $10 billion in damage as well as loss of life. The current flooding has so far cost $1.5 billion and that number is sure to grow.

It makes you wonder: What went wrong? Why weren’t proper measures taken to keep this type of flooding from happening again? Who dropped the ball – and why were they allowed to drop it? We as a society need to ask these questions, not to point the finger of blame, but to make certain that what was avoidable can be prevented in the years to come.

If you want to pinpoint a common problem in each of these infrastructure failures, look no further than the systems used to identify needed repairs and to allocate funds for infrastructure remediation.

Since the 2005 National Transportation Act, states are allowed to do what they choose with the money given to them by the federal government. For the very first time, the federal government has stepped back from establishing national guidelines for the design and maintenance of our critical infrastructure facilities.

Unfortunately, the powers that be – politicians constantly vying for re-election – prefer to spend that money on things that get noticed by the public. Simply put, they get far more political mileage from, say, beautifying an old park than from making (less glamorous) repairs on a bridge or levee. Consequences can be disastrous.

Deferral of money makes infrastructure repair a losing battle. After all, allocating minimal amounts to keep a failing bridge or a levee in status quo condition is just plain wrong when facing the inordinate rebuilding costs and economic damage that will result after it fails and causes huge devastation. Post-infrastructure failure costs always are astronomical – in terms of dollars and human lives – and far outweigh the costs of any preventive measures that could have been taken.

So, now that the Midwest floods have wreaked their havoc, will our nation change its irresponsible ways in regard to its infrastructure needs? Here are a few of my own solutions:

Stop using inaccurate statistics as justification for not spending the necessary monies on infrastructure. In some locations in the Midwest, the recent flooding and that which occurred back in 1993 was designated as “500-year flooding.” Despite popular belief, this does not mean that such floods happen once every 500 years but that they have a 1/500 (or 0.2 percent) chance of happening in a year. According to a recent Kansas City Star story, if FEMA determines that a levee can withstand a 100-year flood – i.e., a flood that has a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year – then the area that levee protects is not considered to be in a flood plain. This designation means federal flood insurance isn’t required for residents who live in the area.

These areas are flooding more and more frequently. Despite that fact, officials from organizations like the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA like to shirk responsibility by saying they couldn’t have predicted the severity of the flooding. That may be true, but what they can control is how risk is assessed in these areas. Some of the methods being used for risk assessment – like floodplain maps – are outdated and inaccurate. Money needs to be allocated so that risk can be reassessed based on current circumstances so that levees can be built up and strengthened where they need to be.

The bottom line is that people need to know if there are areas where they shouldn’t build their homes or establish their businesses. Relying on inaccurate information to make these decisions puts families and businesses at risk and extends the potential for high costs in damages in the future.

Start calculating “real costs” when making decisions regarding the long-term impact of potential disasters. Needed infrastructure repairs often are ignored because the money it would take to make them in the short term isn’t easily available or would restrict the amounts of money politicians could spend in areas more favorable for them. But what happens when you look long-term; all the way down the road to future disasters, in other words? Suddenly, you realize the costs of infrastructure remediation pales in comparison to the future costs of ignoring it.

Let’s use the levee breaks and flood wall breaches that resulted from Hurricane Katrina as an example. Before Katrina struck, it would have taken an estimated $10 billion to repair the levee system so that it could withstand such a storm and protect most but not all of the New Orleans metro areas. But that’s not the end of the story: You also must take into account that New Orleans’ population has been reduced by nearly 50 percent, and trade and commerce in the area may never recover.

The point is that we must start considering all of the “what ifs” related to our failing infrastructure. Katrina should have served as an example that “hoping nothing happens” is not an acceptable course of action. Anyone who truly took the long view would quickly see that it’s almost always a terrible mistake to let infrastructure repair needs slide.

Consider, for instance, that a recent report from the American Counsel of Engineering Companies shows that California alone estimates that it is losing $15 billion or more a year in loss of production due to the lack of necessary spending to repair the state’s infrastructure. State governments should take into account how much they are losing by avoiding the repairs their infrastructure needs. Money is being lost whether there is a disaster or not; the only thing that differs is how much money is lost.

Force politicians and other government officials to act on expert recommendations given to them. Our nation’s infrastructure frequently is inspected, but recommendations for repairs often fall on deaf ears or get held up due to lack of funding. The I-35W Bridge in Minnesota is a prime example. According to a recent investigative report commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and compiled by the firm Gray Plant Mooty, MnDOT hired outside consultants to assess the fatigue life and fatigue cracking in the bridge and determine whether it was necessary to add “redundancy” to the bridge, providing extra support to the original structure, as a safety precaution. Long story short, neither was accomplished. According to the report, “MnDOT initially recognized the need for redundancy but later focused on the fatigue analysis. Ultimately, the bridge did not receive any materially different treatment than it had historically and redundancy was not added to the bridge.”

It turns out a bent gusset plate was photographed and filed in 2003 but none of the inspectors or MnDOT officials who looked at the photo noticed. The bending of multiple plates is what caused the collapse of the bridge. If the repairs and inspections above had been carried out as planned, perhaps the bent gusset plate would have been noticed and the bridge could have been closed to protect the public.

According to the investigative report, as a result of the bridge collapse that happened because these repairs weren’t made, “lives were shattered … So too, was confidence in the [state’s] bridges.” Fixing infrastructure problems that could lead to loss of human life is compulsory, not optional. We should create an independent system that requires that monies are used as designated and which then oversees the system to ensure that projects get completed as planned. It should not be earmarked money or pork-barrel spending, but a non-discretionary spending item that must go towards its intended purpose.

There’s a quote from the recent I-35W Bridge investigative report that says, “When a bridge collapses, so does public faith in government.” Given what has recently happened in the Midwest, we can change the word “bridge” to represent any form of infrastructure in the country and in doing so one realizes how critical the situation is.

We must start considering all of the “what ifs” related to our failing infrastructure. Katrina should have served as an example that “hoping nothing happens” is not an acceptable course of action. Anyone who truly took the long view would quickly see that it almost always is a terrible mistake to let infrastructure repair needs slide.

For better or worse, Americans rely on the government to protect them from harm, and clearly government at all levels is falling down on the job. We hear about the billions of dollars spent on the War on Terror while here at home we are at risk every day because our infrastructure is crumbling. As a government and a society we must make safety at home a priority – and shoring up our infrastructure is the natural place to start.

About the Author: Barry B. LePatner is the founder of the New York City-based law firm LePatner & Associates LLP. For three decades, he has been prominent as an advisor on business and legal issues affecting the real estate, design and construction industries. LePatner is widely recognized as a thought leader in the construction industry. His new book, Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry (The University of Chicago Press), which was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, has created a national debate among owners, designers and other key stakeholders.

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