America is literally falling apart around us. Roads, built decades ago, are littered with potholes from carrying ten times the number of cars they were designed to carry. Crumbling Cold War-era gas pipes are exploding. One in nine of the country's bridges is structurally deficient. And some dam or levee is always just one rainstorm away from wiping out a neighbourhood.
After decades of decline, public spending on infrastructure is at its lowest since 1947. State and local governments, which account for about three-quarters of the nation's infrastructure spending, have been slashing their budgets and putting off repairs. And the Highway Trust Fund, which relies on the federal gas tax for cash, is starved for resources. In its last assessment of the country's infrastructure, the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the US a D+, estimating it would take $3.6 trillion to upgrade the country's infrastructure by 2020.
In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama called on Congress to do something about the problem, jabbing Republicans for their myopic focus on the Keystone XL pipeline. "So let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline," he said. "Let's pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come."
But while both parties agree that infrastructure needs fixing, there are no signs of agreement on any kind of long-term spending bill. So far, Republicans have resisted any attempts to raise the gas tax, which has been at 18 cents per gallon since 1993, relying instead on short-term fixes to keep the fund solvent. "We don't want to build 2014 bridges with 1993 dollars," Brian Pallasch, ASCE's managing director of government relations, told VICE.
The White House has proposed a plan to seek private capital for infrastructure projects, but that's not seen as a long-term solution. Other lawmakers have floated their own ideas – on Thursday, Senators Rand Paul (a Republican from Kentucky) and Barbara Boxer (a Democrat from California) announced they would be introducing legislation that would pay for infrastructure repairs by giving foreign companies an incentive to repatriate foreign earnings – but so far, nothing has moved forward.
In the meantime, it's just getting worse. Here are seven big infrastructure projects that are on the verge of collapse.
Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, Washington, DC
One of America's many structurally deficient bridges, the Frederick Douglass Memorial is trafficked by over 70,000 cars traveling to and from the nation's capital. Like most infrastructure projects, repairs would come with sticker shock: It will cost a projected $900 million to get the bridge back up to standards. "Look, it's not just that the paint is peeling off," the ASCE's Pallasch said. "Even the layperson can see that this bridge needs some work."
Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle
The elevated highway hugging Seattle's waterfront was badly damaged in a 2001 earthquake, leading to a protracted municipal debate over how to make repairs. Engineers eventually opted to dredge a massive tunnel, which they started digging in July 2013. It was supposed to be finished by December 2015, but was pushed back to August 2017 because Bertha, the tunneling machine, is stuck underground. Two state senators have proposed a bill to stop the project, which has already burned through about $2 billion of its $3 billion budget.
Portal Bridge, New Jersey
Designed in the 1840s and completed in 1910, this bridge is, as the New York Times put it last year, a "$900 million problem". Every day it withstands a beating from nearly 500 trains, more than any other bridge in the Western hemisphere. It's also a swing bridge, which means it has to be opened regularly so barges can pass through the river, causing delays along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor when it fails to lock back properly.
Baltimore City Sewer System
Baltimore's sewer system is over a century old. Spanning more than 3,000 miles of pipelines, the city's sewers were the target of a 2002 EPA and Maryland Department of the Environment lawsuit that ended in the city signing a consent decree to fix the deteriorating pipes.
Fast forward to 2015: While the city has made some headway on the over $1 billion in rehabilitations the sewers needed, Baltimore Department of Public Works spokesperson Jeff Raymond was cagey when I asked whether the city would meet the 2016 deadline. "We are working literally every day to make sure that we're solving our problems," he said. "The federal government has not come down and provided money to match its mandates."
Circle Interchange, Chicago
Chicago's major freeway junction is the second worst bottleneck in the country, according to rankings from the American Transportation Research Institute and the Federal Highway Administration. In 2013, then-Illinois Governor Pat Quinn launched a four-year, $475 million project to revamp the interchange. But the Illinois Department of Transportation told VICE that construction won't be finished until 2018, "pending funding between now and fiscal-year 2017".
In the meantime, the city's radio traffic reporters still call it "the mixing bowl". And as anyone who has lived in Chicago can tell you, it's still an unmitigated mess.
Addicks and Barker Dams, Houston
According to the ASCE, it will cost $50 billion to fix all of America's deficient dams. In Texas alone, there are 1,086 high-hazard dams, two of which – Addicks and Barker, in the metro Houston area – were found in "extremely high risk of catastrophic failure" by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 2009. Interim risk reduction measures were put in place between 2009 and 2014, to the tune of $6.8 million, but the dams are still considered extremely high risk.
"These dams are almost 70 years old, and the average lifespan of a structure of this type is 50 years," said Sandra Arnold, chief of public affairs for the US Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District. The dams will be at high risk for catastrophe until long-term repairs, expected to cost roughly $100 million, are put in place.
The Brent Spence Bridge, spanning the Ohio River between Kentucky and Cincinnati, was deemed "functionally obsolete" in 1998. Photo via Flickr user PunkToad
Brent Spence Bridge
Each year, 1.6 million gallons of fuel and 3.6 million hours are wasted on the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects northern Kentucky with the greater Cincinnati area. The bridge, originally opened in 1963, is overwhelmed with traffic from two interstates, resulting in nasty traffic jams. Not to mention, the structure was deemed "functionally obsolete" – in 1998.
The problem is that it's hard enough to convince one state legislature to pass a $2.6 billion upgrade. Lawmakers in Kentucky and Ohio have been locked in a lengthy battle over how to pay for the Brent Spence repairs, while 3 percent of the entire country's GDP is stuck in traffic over the Ohio River. To make matters worse, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has said that every month the project is delayed will tack on an additional $7 million.
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