May 15-19 was Infrastructure Week and several events were held in communities throughout the country to support building for a better America and to elevate the importance of infrastructure and the impact it has on everyone who uses transportation, water, energy, ports, public buildings and more. Over the course of five days, state governors signed proclamations and partner organizations hosted events on subjects like public-private partnerships, smart cities, water management, supply chains and autonomous vehicles.
In March the American Society of Civil Engineers released their Infrastructure Report Card and America earned a “D+.” Panels, presentations and congressional meetings were held in Washington, D.C. to discuss this overall grade and strategies needed to obtain successful goals for the future. The weeklong event began with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao who spoke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and outlined President Donald Trump’s infrastructure vision. Chao shared that Trump “has made revitalizing, repairing and rebuilding our country’s infrastructure one of his top priorities.” She said that the administration is prepared to include $200 billion in direct federal funds and that “these funds will be used to leverage $1 trillion in infrastructure investments over ten years.”
Chao added that there is no one-size-fits-all revenue model when it comes to infrastructure projects. “Toll roads, for example, may work well in urban areas, where they generate consistent revenue because of high demand,” said Chao. “But lower demand on rural roads may not generate enough revenue to repay private investment. This Administration is committed to an infrastructure package that addresses the needs of the entire country, urban and rural.” Read more on Chao’s address on infrastructure here.
Local Chambers of Commerce, unions, utilities, mayors, governors, legislators, policy organizations, trade associations, manufacturers, retailers and more came together to share a common theme during Infrastructure Week: “Across America It’s Time To Build.”
Many roads, bridges and other systems are reaching the end of their useful life. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, almost four in 10 of America’s 614,387 bridges are over 50 years old. Around 9.1 percent of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient in 2016 and 188 million trips are taken daily over deficient bridges. In March, the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur, Calif., collapsed after heavy rains damaged the span on Highway 1. Over 400 residents were stranded after the bridge split the tourist area in two. Building a new highway bridge is expected to take six to nine months.
The average age of the 90,580 dams in the country is 56 years. As our population grows and development continues, the overall number of high-hazard potential dams is increasing, with the number climbing to nearly 15,500 in 2016. Due to the lack of investment, the number of deficient high-hazard potential dams has also climbed to an estimated 2,170 or more. It is estimated that it will require an investment of nearly $45 billion to repair aging, yet critical, high-hazard potential dams. Prior to the 2017 Oroville Dam failure in California, there was the Ka Loko Reservoir Dam burst in March 2006 that killed seven people in Kauai, Hawaii. The dam unleashed 400 million gallons of water onto the island. The dam’s poor maintenance, lack of inspection and illegal modifications were blamed for its failure.
The American Society for Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card highlights a $105 billion investment gap for water and wastewater infrastructure from 2016-2025. A report issued this month by the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that 27 million people, or one in every 12 Americans, were served by a drinking water system with health-based violations. The report exposes health-based violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as violations for improper water monitoring and reporting, at more than 18,000 community water systems across the nation. These federal drinking water rules are intended to protect against about 100 contaminants, such as toxic chemicals, bacteria and metals like lead that can cause health impacts like cancer, birth defects and cognitive impairments.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranked the U.S. as 19th in overall infrastructure out of 148 countries surveyed. Rattling off statistics shows the shortfall, but the question many asked during infrastructure week’s roundtable discussions is what can be done to help address America’s infrastructure deficit?
Last week Sens. Mark Warner and Roy Blunt reintroduced a bipartisan bill to create a financing authority that would provide loans and loan guarantees to help states and localities better leverage private funds to repair, maintain and build the nation’s infrastructure.
The Building and Renewing Infrastructure for Development and Growth in Employment Act, or BRIDGE Act, is being touted as a vehicle to help tackle dwindling federal investment in maintaining and improving the country’s transportation network, water and wastewater systems and energy infrastructure. To help address this funding shortfall for the nation’s transportation, water and energy infrastructure, the BRIDGE Act will establish an independent, nonpartisan financing authority to complement existing U.S. infrastructure funding. The authority would provide loans and loan guarantees to help states and localities fund the most economically viable road, bridge, rail, port, water, sewer and other significant infrastructure projects. The authority would receive initial seed funding of up to $10 billion, which could incentivize private sector investment and make possible $300 billion or more in total project investment. The authority is structured in a way to make it self-sustaining over time without requiring additional federal appropriations.
This week, Congress received an early outline of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure initiative from a budget blueprint released for fiscal year 2018. The 62-page document, titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” calls for $200 billion in federal funding over the next 10 years to overhaul the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and waterways. The $200 billion isn’t necessarily meant to fund projects directly, but instead to entice states, localities and private companies to inject $800 billion more into infrastructure funding. That would total $1 trillion, the infrastructure spending figure Trump called for during his presidential campaign.
The budget also suggests a removal of the $15 billion cap on tax-exempt bonds issued to private builders by the Department of Transportation and removing the current restriction on commercial rest areas on the roadways. The plan also doesn’t fully remove the interstate tolling ban, but allows states “to assess their transportation needs and weigh the relative merits of tolling assets.”
Congress hasn’t passed a budget in several years. Instead, they have passed resolutions that continue prior-year funding levels over short-term periods. The next fiscal year begins in October.
A hole in the ground can be a bad thing for rolling wheels and moving feet. These burrows, potholes, divots, manholes, ground tunnels and ditches could cause issues if they are overlooked, but when the Earth suddenly gives way and a large land-mass collapses, the level of danger and damage can be much more detrimental and harder to avoid. These sinking sensations are called sinkholes and they can happen naturally or with help from humans, and the cost of repair can run into the millions for states, cities and counties.
A natural sinkhole occurs in “karst terrain,” which means the type of rock, called evaporites, below the land surface can naturally be dissolved by groundwater circulating through them. When rain water moves down through the soil, these types of rock begin to dissolve and spaces and caverns develop underground. When a sinkhole occurs, it is normally massive because the land will stay intact for a period of time until the underground spaces get too big and there is not enough support anymore for the top layer of land. The ground could collapse suddenly or cave in gradually over time. Sinkholes occur more frequently after intense rainfall, but there is some evidence that drought can cause this phenomenon. Areas where water levels have lowered suddenly are more prone to collapse formation.
The most damage from natural sinkholes tends to occur in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. In 2014, a 40-foot-wide, 20-foot-deep natural sinkhole opened in Bowling Green, Ky., in the middle of the National Corvette Museum, swallowing eight vintage cars. In 1994, Polk County, Fla., had a 15-story sinkhole open up beneath an 80-million-ton pile of toxic industrial waste. Cleaning up around 90 percent of the county’s drinking water ran into the millions.
Man-made sinkholes caused by a human, or anthroprogenic, can occur in any state under the wrong conditions. There have been more than 20 ground collapses in the last two decades in Asheville, N.C. Nearly all of these land cave-ins were caused by underground pipe failures. One of the sinkholes has been gradually swallowing up two homes, forcing tenants out and making them unlivable. In December, a $5.6 million stormwater utility fund paid for annually by Asheville property owners was used to replace 2,500 feet of pipes to drain away rain water.
In Michigan, a sewer pipe collapse led to a 100-foot wide by 200-foot long sinkhole in Fraser. The December 2016 incident put 11 municipalities that pay for the sewer system on the hook to cover repairs. The sinkhole forced evacuations of 22 homes. Occupants in 19 of the homes have returned, but two of them have been condemned and demolished. Repairs are estimated to cost around $75 million and the Washington Township, who owns just under 3 percent of the system, will put forth $2 million towards the repair cost. The city of Sterling Heights is protesting against its $22 million portion of the tab. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley announced that a $3 million state grant would help repair the sinkhole. The funding supplemented a $2 million grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
In January, a sinkhole in Cheltenham, Pa., swallowed a vehicle, a tree, a driveway, sidewalks, part of two front lawns and eventually claimed two homes. Emergency responders were unsure whether the sinkhole was due to natural causes or from a water main brake.
In February, a water main break flooded several streets in Hoboken, N.J., causing an elementary school to shut down and forming a sinkhole that swallowed an entire sports utility vehicle.
Last week a 13-foot by 20-foot sinkhole, likely caused by a failed irrigation pipe, shut down both lanes of traffic on 11th Avenue in Hanford, Calif. Old corrugated metal pipes that have rusted away have caused other road sinkholes in the Hanford area in recent months. A 30-year-old metal culvert passing under a county highway and old roads caused two road collapses a couple of weeks ago in Wausau, Wis.
Sewer pipes can become compromised in different ways over time. Small cracks or fractures can occur in old pipes, or misalignments can occur at a connection point. These openings can be tiny but still allow small amounts of dirt to sift into the pipe. That dirt is carried away with the wastewater, but over time, enough soil from above the pipe is flushed away that a hollow space can form above the pipe and below the street surface. If enough soil quietly sifts into the sewer, and a big enough void forms below the street’s concrete, the surface may no longer be able to support its own weight, and collapses into that subterranean space. This can happen suddenly, or gradually.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that at least 23,000 to 75,000 sanitary sewer overflow events occur in the United States each year and that around $271 billion is needed for wastewater infrastructure over the next 25 years. While the federal government provides some funding through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 95 percent of spending on water infrastructure is made at the local level. Cities and towns across the country report that complying with federal wastewater and stormwater regulations represents some of their costliest capital infrastructure projects. The majority of treatment facility expenses are supported by rate payers, however rising utility bills can present affordability issues. In a 2014 survey of the nation’s 50 largest cities, average monthly sewer bills ranged from $12.72 in Memphis to $149.35 in Atlanta.
The opportunities for water and sewage system repairs and replacements won’t be slowing down anytime soon for states like Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board recently approved a $27.36 million loan the city can use to fund wastewater and stormwater infrastructure projects and purchase equipment needed to maintain their system. The low-interest loan will be financed through the Oklahoma Clean Water Revolving Fund, a program administered at the federal level by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in partnership with the states.
City councilors in March approved the long-range infrastructure plan, which includes the repair or replacement of infrastructure that is 100 years old or older. Planned sewer and stormwater improvements include repairs to several sewage lift stations, upgrades to collection lines within certain basins, wastewater treatment plant improvements and Civitan Basin stormwater drainage improvements. Most of those projects address problems identified in a consent order issued by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality in response to past violations.
In Pennsylvania, an analysis of Carlisle Borough’s water distribution system recommends the borough begin a replacement program on its 86 miles of water mains that could cost up to $2 million per year and take decades to complete. The borough took over the water system during the 1940s. It has no records for the system prior to the acquisition. That means the age of some of the mains is unknown, but could date back more than 100 years. The study recommended that 1.5 to 2 miles of mains be replaced yearly. At that rate, it would take 40-55 years to replace all of the mains.
An independent study performed on the water and sewer system in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found that the city’s system to deliver drinking water from the tap, and to carry away sewage, has aging parts that could fail at any time. This 106-year-old city could be looking at $1.4 billion worth of repairs. In November, voters countywide defeated a sales tax increase for improvements that could have helped cities like Fort Lauderdale rebuild aging systems. The water-sewer system serves hundreds of thousands, reaching beyond Fort Lauderdale’s borders. The city paid $1.9 million for a consultant to review the water and sewer system. The review was completed in April, but information has not been disclosed on the findings.