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August 9, 2007

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if there was a Fountain of Youth? Now you might ponder this question, dreaming of eternal youth. The conservative in me has me thinking more about dollars and cents as opposed to wrinkles and other signs of age.

As a matter of fact I’m not even longing for the discovery of the fabled life extender for reasons of vanity. As every day passes, we grow older. But while we are looking in the mirror trying to look younger, everything around us is also growing older.

The recent tragedy in Minnesota brought this issue to the forefront recently. While it is not a new issue, our nation’s aging infrastructure has to be a concern. Every time you or I celebrate a birthday, there is a highway, a bridge, a water line or a sewer system that is also another year older.

You thought that birthday gift for a spouse was expensive, well try paying for the presents we all need, the replacement of our deteriorating roads, river crossings and utility services. That’s why I would like to follow in the footsteps of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon and try to find the legendary spring that restores the youth of whomever drinks from its waters. Maybe we could load up some of the magic liquid in a few of those tanker airplanes we use to fight forest fires and douse our nation’s aging infrastructure to bring it back to life.

Heck I’m a practical guy. We could kill two birds with one stone. If we pumped the Fountain of Youth’s product through our city’s water lines, maybe it would return the distribution system to 100-percent efficiency while also eliminating a wrinkle or two from the town folks who enjoy their tap water.

Unfortunately, there is no magical fix to this issue.

As you watch the horrifying footage of the I-35 bridge collapse, one can’t help but become a little concerned when learning that this bridge was just one of thousands across the nation that are in need of repair. According to the United States Department of Transportation:

“Most bridges are inspected every 2 years and receive ratings based on the condition of various bridge components. Two terms used to summarize bridge deficiencies are ‘structurally deficient’ and ‘functionally obsolete.’ Structural deficiencies are characterized by deteriorated conditions of significant bridge elements and reduced load-carrying capacity. Functional obsolescence is a function of the geometrics of the bridge not meeting current design standards. Neither type of deficiency indicates that a bridge is unsafe. Rural bridges tend to have a higher percentage of structural deficiencies, while urban bridges have a higher incidence of functional obsolescence due to rising traffic volumes.”

The percentage of bridges classified as deficient in the last report issued in 2004 was 26.7 percent. That means 1 out of every 4 bridges earned the same designation as the now infamous I-35 bridge.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, our nation earns a D on the infrastructure report card. It’s going to take a pretty expensive tutor to raise that poor performance, as the ASCE estimates it would cost $1.6 trillion to bring our infrastructure up to speed. The group says the nation could spend more than $9 million a year for the next 20 years alone, just to bring the nearly 600,000 bridges up to par.

Believe it or not, bridges got the second highest grade, a C, trailing only solid waste management, which is the brain in the class with a C+. The two class dunces are waste water treatment and drinking water, which both are just barely passing the class with D- grades.

The latter two, along with the electricity (energy also receives a D as the report points out that energy generation has not kept up with demand, while the transmission grid faces similar challenges as all infrastructure with lagging maintenance and upgrade expenditures) are issues at the forefront locally.

Electricity and water bills have been on the rise, due in large part directly to the increased cause of purchasing power, supplying water and treating waste. At the same point in time, leaders are being faced with the dilemma of trying to address the crumbling infrastructure. For years, we have enjoyed the free ride, not only with cheap resources, but with little concern for the future of the system following the motto, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Unfortunately these services are too important to simply wait until they are not available to try to rectify the problem. If we do not bite the bullet and start paying to take care of what we have, we’ll be using another popular phrase, “You don’t know what you’ve got, ‘til it’s gone.”


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