Let it Flow

The Challenge of Aging Infrastructure
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

Vital to the daily operations of all communities, infrastructure encompasses roads, telecommunications systems, power generation, transportation, water and sewers, and more – all of which affect health, the economy, and education.

Adversity can bring out the best in people. Established in the United States in the middle of The Great Depression and six years before entering World War II – the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided Americans with much-needed jobs.

Replacing the earlier Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the WPA was supported by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and billions of dollars in investment. The plan not only provided work, it also resulted in the construction of roads, highways, bridges and other infrastructure.

Over 85 years later, the WPA remains one of America’s greatest achievements. Creating some eight million jobs during one of the worst crises in history, it realized 639,000 miles of surfaced roads, about a million miles of sidewalks, 2,550 hospitals, 500 water treatment plants, almost 13,000 playgrounds, countless miles of curbs and ditches, over 1,000 airports, together with almost 1,100 libraries, schools, firehouses, tunnels and courthouses.

Lasting until 1943, it is sometimes confused with the similarly named Public Works Administration (PWA), which used private construction companies. Under the PWA, some of the largest projects created in the U.S. were built, including New York’s Lincoln Tunnel, the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge, and the world-famous Hoover Dam. Bordering Nevada and Arizona, the 726 foot (221 m) high dam remains a major feat of engineering to this day.

Years after the construction of Depression-era infrastructure projects, America under President Dwight D. Eisenhower passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, authorizing and funding the construction of over 43,000 miles (70,000 km) of Interstate highways.

Similarly, in Canada, major roadway construction was underway throughout the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in the Trans-Canada Highway, the McDonald-Cartier Freeway, and other major thoroughfares. These projects and others reflected growing post-war car ownership, improving access, and saving drivers billions of dollars annually in time and fuel costs.

After decades of use, many of North America’s highways, bridges, sidewalks, public buildings and other infrastructure are far past expected lifespan, and in dire need of replacement. Add growing populations and greater density in cities and suburbs, and the need to rebuild and add new infrastructure grows.

Along with the need to repair highways, tunnels, bridges and buildings, some of the biggest infrastructure needs remain sewage treatment and the provision of clean water. Whereas delaying other types of infrastructure projects poses an inconvenience, potable water is necessary for life, and one need look no further than Flint, Michigan.

To many, Flint is less famous for being the state’s largest city and seat than it is for its contaminated water crisis. Motivated by greed, the short-sighted decision was made to switch the water system to the Flint River from Detroit’s system (drawing from Lake Huron) starting in 2014.

For residents of the once-powerful automobile-manufacturing city – with its shaky economy and high crime rate – the move was disastrous. The presence of lead in the local water supply, and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, caused a five-year-long public health emergency, abject misery for locals, and a deep-seated distrust in government.

The switch in water supply soon saw residents complain of foul-smelling and tasting water, and a multitude of health issues ranging from skin rashes to hair loss. Way before the crisis of 2014 to 2019, the Flint River had a century-old reputation as a dumpsite for local manufacturers’ harmful waste materials, cancer-causing chemicals, and raw sewage from meat packing plants and paper mills.

According to local legend, though not reflected in written sources, the Flint River was so polluted it caught fire – twice. The more polluted the water source, the greater the need for modern infrastructure and proper processing. So, already rich in bacteria, more chlorine was needed for treatment. In time, this led to highly acidic water, which corroded older pipes, introducing lead and other heavy metals into households. A powerful poison, lead builds up in the body over years. Children are especially at risk, with lead poisoning resulting in severe mental developmental problems, weight loss, abdominal pain, fatigue, hearing loss, and seizures.

In 2017, the U.S, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality $100 million to fund upgrades to water infrastructure in Flint. Provided by the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act of 2016 (WIIN), they earmarked the money for the city to replace dangerous old lead pipes and make other vital improvements to its water infrastructure.

“The people of Flint and all Americans deserve a more responsive federal government,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt at the time in a media release. “EPA will especially focus on helping Michigan improve Flint’s water infrastructure as part of our larger goal of improving America’s water infrastructure.”

Even today, after an estimated $400 million in state and federal improvements and tests showing Flint residents have clean water in their pipes, studies have shown many locals are still angry, and cannot bring themselves to drink city tap water.

Many of the world’s biggest cities are facing aging infrastructure, including New York, Toronto, and London. Sewers constructed well over a century ago simply cannot handle today’s population and modern-day issues.

Several years ago, workers had to remove a so-called “fatberg” from the London sewer system. Weighing about 40 tonnes, the giant blob of fat, oil, grease and modern-day conveniences like cotton pads, diapers, and unflushable wipes was the size of one of London’s double-decker buses. The nightmarish mass blocked 80 percent of the aging sewer’s cross-section and took three weeks to clear.

Echoing the Works Progress Administration and Federal Emergency Relief Administration initiatives of decades past, mid-November saw U.S. President Joe Biden sign a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a top priority for the President, one which will strengthen American manufacturing, “rebuild crumbling infrastructure, create good paying jobs, and grow our economy,” according to the official media release. Among its six infrastructure priorities are ‘buy American,’ create good-paying jobs, avoid waste, and build infrastructure able to withstand climate change.

Of the trillion dollars, $550 billion will go towards transportation, broadband and utilities, another $110 billion into roads and bridges, $66 billion into improvements to freight and passenger rail, $39 billion into public transit, and billions into other initiatives such as improving America’s water systems. The President was quoted as saying: “So my message to the American people is this: America is moving again, and your life is going to change for the better.”

The infrastructure bill is not without controversy. Coming at a time when America is deeply fragmented politically, economically and racially, some question Biden’s promise of “good-paying job opportunities for millions of Americans by focusing on high labour standards… including prevailing wages and the free and fair chance to join a union,” with critics saying the scheme doesn’t go nearly far enough.

While the trillion-dollar figure is impressive, it is less than half of the $2.3 trillion he initially vowed to spend on infrastructure. Others say the money is nowhere near enough to make up for decades of unaddressed repairs to roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, some of it almost 90 years old.

In his brief paper from September 2021 entitled The U.S. Infrastructure Shortfall, Yale University Professor of Economics Ray C. Fair wrote, “The $1 trillion infrastructure bill that has passed the Senate will obviously improve matters if it is passed into law. How much will this make up for past neglect?” Discussing the 50-year-long shortfall in infrastructure investment, Fair stated that Biden’s bill is modest, and much more investment is needed.



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