Power outages and dams in danger of collapsing — Hurricane Sandy shows just how obsolete America's infrastructure really is. That's now a major problem.
Just a few weeks ago, the World Economic Forum was the first to stick its finger in the wound. In its report on the competitive capability of 144 nations, the United States ended up in seventh place — behind Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany.
One reason for that ranking was the nation's decaying infrastructure. The United States has neglected to invest sufficiently in modern electrical and telecommunications grids. If one looks only at the reliability of the energy supply, the United States does even worse, finishing 32nd in the world. The electrical grid fails regularly, resulting in blackouts. That's not happening in a developing country but in an industrialized nation in a global leadership position. Even countries like Slovenia and Portugal have electrical distribution networks superior to those in the United States.
The White House itself recently admitted in an official document that not much progress had been made in the nation since the end of the 19th century, when inventor Thomas Edison first made electricity widely available across the country. Political scientist Dr. Eberhard Sandschneider, addressing the German Council on Foreign Relations recently, commented that the United States had once been the guiding light of modernity but has since become a straggler in that area. That has developed into the serious problem Hurricane Sandy has highlighted.
Power Lines on Wooden Poles
There are still many power companies operating without real-time information. In the event of a power failure, they can't even tell which households have been knocked offline. A majority of power lines in the U.S. still run above ground on wooden poles, all of which makes the energy supply highly vulnerable to storms like Hurricane Sandy. If a tree falls on those lines, entire neighborhoods can be blacked out in a matter of seconds. That's why some 7 million people in the northeastern U.S. are currently without electricity.
All this is the result of a persistent trend over the years: installation of new or upgraded power lines is far too slow. Where the demand for electricity since 1990 has risen by 25 percent, construction of new or upgraded grids has fallen by some 30 percent in the same time period, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Now the missed opportunities are coming home to roost.
But the outmoded power grid is just one aspect. Streets are full of potholes, docks are inadequate and sewer systems are in disrepair. The need for investment across the entire infrastructure is enormous. Airports are too small, leading to chronic delays that cost both time and money. Harbors and docks are bursting at the seams; some of them are already incapable of accommodating the newest generation of container ships.
One in Every Four Bridges Is Unsafe
Bridges fare no better. According to the ASCE, one-fourth of America’s 600,000 bridges are either unstable or too dangerous to use. The engineers describe the nation's dams as “alarming.” About 15,000 of the approximately 85,000 dams are deemed to be at high risk of failure.
Repairing the infrastructure will require huge sums of money. The ASCE estimates that repairing the electrical grid alone will take a minimum of $107 billion between now and the year 2020. Experts say lack of money isn't always the cause of failures. Overly strict conditions for permits, litigation and nebulous regulatory requirements hinder grid expansion. Across all sectors — waterways, electrical grids, airports, roads and utilities — the ASCE estimates the nation will need to invest $2.2 trillion over the next five years.
Up to now, such sums have played little part in election campaigns. Sandschneider says that politicians can't hit any electoral jackpots talking about infrastructure. But he thinks Hurricane Sandy might change that and refocus election interest on the infrastructure problem. He says if Obama proves to be a good crisis manager, that might help him win the election.
Edited by Gillian Palmer