The Unseen Decline of America’s Infrastructure: Decaying Pipes, Antiquated Networks
That America's infrastructure is falling apart is clear. Bridge collapses, degraded roadways, and rusting factories are common from coast to coast. But perhaps more dangerous in terms of both public health and America's economic competitiveness is the creeping decay of our hidden, yet equally vital water and information technology infrastructure.
The fact of the matter is that pipes decay over time, and technological developments render older IT systems obsolete, or at least terribly inefficient compared to newer systems. But rather than confront the problem head-on, public sector paralysis has led to these essential systems being neglected for far longer than is prudent.
And as a result, America's public utilities and IT systems are growing more and more inefficient, requiring increased funds just to keep the current system in some semblance of operating order. Clearly this is not an ideal way to be spending tax dollars or, in the case of privately owned telecommunications technology, revenues that might otherwise be reinvested in share price or in reducing service charges to users.
But even though it is clear that our priorities need to change, revitalizing America's crumbling infrastructure has attracted little in the way of concrete attention, research, and most of all investment. What funding has been allocated generally gets used to fund highly visible highway and bridge maintenance. This, while important, misses an important point: when it comes to maintaining infrastructure, it's not just about bridges and roads and dams. It's about keeping neighborhood and business water use as efficient as possible, and making sure growing businesses that require intensive use of telecommunications capabilities have access to the bandwidth they need.
As I've argued before, America needs a new WPA to revitalize its dying infrastructure. But this WPA must focus on more than visible projects – it must counteract the decay occurring beneath our collective feet.
Aqueduct of Pegões, Tomar, Portugal
Water Systems: The Source and Cost of Degradation
Water is the most fundamental resource on the planet when it comes to sustaining life. Where there is no water, human life cannot survive for more than a few days, and sustaining a civilization is absolutely impossible if supplies of clean fresh water cannot be sustained.
Determining how to bring fresh water where it is needed and carry away waste water was a major problem for all developing civilizations in ancient history. Probably the best known example of an effective water system was that of the Roman aqueducts, which brought water to Rome and carried waste water away from the city. This concept has actually changed very little in the intervening two thousand years since Rome was great, and under our cities and neighborhoods a complex network of water systems is spread to bring water where it is needed and carry sewage away from our homes and businesses. Many communities still rely on water that is piped in from hundreds of miles away, and an effective sewage treatment system is essential for every town in America.
But water systems are a classic example of out of sight, out of mind: few politicians (if any) have been elected on a slogan of rebuilding America's sewers. Unfortunately this neglect, of minor consequence when water systems were but a decade or two old, has now led to a century or more of degradation managed only by a few technicians with limited budgets. And the result is clear.
Burst water mains can cost a community tens of thousands of dollars or more, and occur across much of the country during the winter months. Less spectacular are leaks that simply allow a constant trickle of water to escape, that over time grow in magnitude and cost users more and more money as they grow. These sorts of leaks can, over time, destabilize soils around houses and contribute to mold and erosion problems. The costs of repair are generally quite high once sufficient damage has been done to be noticeable.
A big part of the problem is that most of the pipes in the United States are at least fifty years old, and many are over a hundred. The materials used 50-100 years ago ranged from wood to lead to cast iron. All of these materials degrade in the presence of water, some more quickly than others and, in the case of lead, with toxic results.
IT Infrastructure: Falling Behind the Times
The United States has long been a leader in technological innovation, especially in the area of telecommunications. The telephone was patented and adopted in the US relatively more quickly than in Europe or Asia, and a significant effort was made to link the US by telegraph in the 19th century. Because of the long distances information has always had to travel to make it from one end of the country to the other, innovation in information technology infrastructure has always been important to American society and commerce.
The internet revolution, too, was largely pushed forward by the United States, although countries like France must be given credit for developing and deploying similar national systems before the US got on board. But regardless of who came first, America was the nation that brought key innovations to the rest of the world, and helped built the World Wide Web's infrastructure.
But ironically, the US lead in IT has been eroded relatively rapidly due to its long reliance on sending data over old style phone lines. In the early days of the internet these had the advantage of being present in most American homes, and so early adoption of the internet was made easy for many Americans. But as businesses began to realize the power of the internet, it became rapidly apparent that they needed more bandwidth – effectively more dedicated room on the wires – to perform efficiently in a high tech world. The importance of IT infrastructure, support service networks, and reliable data streams were not immediately well understood. Traffic bottlenecks became and remain common, and rather in invest in additional capacity, many service providers throttle their users' speeds and bandwidth allocations.
This continued reliance upon old style telephone line and cable connections has made American businesses relatively less competitive than their counterparts abroad. Wireless data connections are becoming more common in the United States, but many communities are still crippled by poor signals and poor speeds. The problem extends to the microwave telecommunications network: where most developing countries are completely served by high quality wireless communications systems, dead zones are still ubiquitous even in US urban areas.
In the realm of fiber-optics networks as well the US lags behind competitor nations. These provide some of the most technologically sophisticated data transmission capabilities known to mankind, and yet are only slowly being adopted as a supplement to wireless telecommunications networks.
Fiber Optic Connectors
The Solution: A Concerted Effort to Rebuild Our Water and Data Systems
The slow pace of updating telecommunications networks and the ongoing destruction of vital water systems are two massive components of America's overall infrastructure degradation that must be addressed, and soon. In purely economic terms, the costs of lost productivity due to rotten data networks and the costs of repairing – in situations of catastrophic failure in water systems – both the immediate damage done to the water network and the collateral damage done to surrounding property are steadily increasing.
As citizens we should all recognize the importance of IT infrastructure, support service of its fundamental components, and be willing to sacrifice some tax dollars as an investment in boosting long term productivity. As citizens we should all back a reinvestment in modernizing water systems to reduce our own costs due to water loss and the expense of mitigating catastrophic systems failures.
This is a difficult commitment to make when economic uncertainty still looms over us. But there is a clear need for an investment now, when so many people with relevant skills are unemployed and so many local businesses could benefit from cost reductions and the boost in orders that would come from a concerted effort to revitalize crumbling infrastructure.
If additional motivation, beyond a desire to save money in the long haul and put people back to work in the near term, is required, consider several facts.
Cities along major rivers that also receive significant rainfall, such as Portland, Oregon or Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, currently face a major problem with rainfall overwhelming the ability of sewer systems to cope. This leads to raw sewage flowing into the rivers that run through these cities. Smaller communities face a similar problem. Investing in sewer systems with better capacities (remember that they were originally designed during a time when the US population was less than half of what it is now) would help mitigate this problem.
Many pipes installed in the first half of the 20th century were made of wood or lead. Wood rots and molds, and mold spores in water can lead to expensive, unhealthy mold problems in homes. Lead is a known toxic element that causes brain damage and death in children. Just like many old homes have lead paint problems, many old communities are served by lead pipes that degrade, and pump poison into the water.
Dropped calls are a perpetual problem on wireless networks across America. It is unknown how many hours of lost productivity are caused due to calls dropping, or how many business deals fall through because a key member of a negotiating team can't reliably attend a major conference call. And when it comes to the internet itself, insufficient bandwidth interferes with users' ability to browse a website, making it less likely that page views will converted to dollars.
Concrete Water Pipe
The Solution: A New WPA That Addresses All Infrastructural Problems
A new Works Progress Administration could well do more than simply put unemployed back to work and generate a long term return on dollars spent in assisting those down on their luck. It could revitalize our productivity and competitiveness, and generate increased business revenues and government tax receipts over the long run.
But it cannot just focus on bridges and roads: our water networks are in serious need of repair, and our telecommunications systems are simply an embarrassment. But imagine if public assistance money were put less into unemployment compensation and more into hiring those out of work to build up our infrastructure? Our society could well benefit for decades to come as we reap the rewards of better data transfer rates and healthier water systems.
- World Record 69-Terabit Capacity for Optical Transmission over a Single Optical Fiber, 2010 Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation
- Lead Water Pipes and Infant Mortality in Turn of the Century Massachusetts, Werner Troesken, 2003 The National Bureau of Economic Research
- Burst Water Main Could Cost Corvallis $20,000, by Tom Henderson, 2008 Corvallis Democrat-Herald
- Understanding the Sewer Collection System, 3riverswetweather.org
- All Images Accessed Via Wiki Commons