The “infrastructure” we’ve been hearing so much about in the past few years refers to roads, bridges, and water and sewer systems, many of which are on the brink of collapse in the United States. Along with the electrical grid, tunnels, railroads, and dams, these supersized systems allow us to live the way we do. They supply power and clean water and enable us to travel over and under rivers instead of through them.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) determined in 2021 that 43% of roads and highways in the US are in poor or mediocre condition. So it’s hard to choose just a few areas to focus on, but arguably, these are the three most urgent infrastructure problems in need of repair.
The ASCE also estimated that 46,000 bridges are in such bad shape that fixing them all would take more than 50 years. Many major bridges that connect states and cities are in need of repair due to structural defects caused by age and wear. These include the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Kentucky, over the Ohio River, as well as the Lindell-Union Bridge in St. Louis. This is where a huge chunk of concrete fell and killed a woman when it landed on her car in 2018 after another driver lost control and crashed.
Along with bridges in major cities, hundreds of rural bridges are well past their planned life spans. The New Harmony Bridge across the Wabash River between Indiana and Illinois has been closed since 2012 because of structural issues. A huge investment in workers and manufacturers who can produce structural steelwill be necessary to rebuild bridges such as these.
Dams and Levees
A dam collapse can threaten hundreds of thousands of lives. The earthen Mojave River Dam in San Bernadino County, California, sits above a population of 300,000 people. In 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers elevated the risk level for the dam to “high.” Furthermore, two dams in Michigan collapsed in 2020, draining 2 lakes and causing 175 million dollars’ worth of damage to the city of Midland, Michigan.
Similarly, levees designed to hold back rising rivers are at risk of collapse or overflow due to increasingly intense rainstorms that drop unprecedented volumes of water in short stretches of time. Spectacular failures during floods have caused some riverside communities to consider “managed retreat,” where the whole town simply packs up and moves to higher ground.
Atop the list of the three most urgent infrastructure problems in need of repair are the tunnels that run under the Hudson River in New York City. They sustained severe damage during Hurricane Sandy, and the lingering salt from the seawater continue to affect the structures, which see hundreds of thousands of rail passengers pass through each day. Failure would be devasting and catastrophic.
Many of these infrastructure problems have been festering for years. It remains to be seen how aggressively the government will act to undertake urgent repairs.