of 2013 an Interstate bridge on a main commercial corridor between Seattle,
Washington and Vancouver, Canada, collapsed and fell into the river below after
being hit by a truck. This was not a high-speed collision; the truck simply
bumped one of the main support pillars at low speed, but the weakened and
dilapidated pillar broke from the strain and, without that extra bit of
support, the entire bridge immediately collapsed. In prior examinations, the
heavily-travelled bridge had not only been rated as functionally obsolete but
structurally deficient and requiring replacement.
This is only one of thousands; the great majority of the physical
infrastructure of the US is in a similar condition, involving roads, dams,
bridges and more. More than 160,000 bridges in the US are officially
categorized as dangerous, at risk of collapse, with such collapses now
regularly occurring. (1) (2) (3)
Most American infrastructure was built in the early to mid-20th century, the
continent having been simultaneously wired for electricity and phone service
while constructing large projects like the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate
Bridge, as well as the interstate highway system along with thousands of
smaller bridges, tunnels and more. But the US has spent almost no money on
maintenance and repairs on any of this infrastructure for almost 60 years now.
The situation today is dire and in many instances critical, but money is no
longer available. Roads and highways alone require more than $100 billion per
year; bridges would require many hundreds of billions per year indefinitely.
Most are reaching the end of their useful life and repairs alone will not
suffice; replacement will become increasingly necessary.
The American society of Civil Engineers
produced a comprehensive evaluation report on America's entire infrastructure,
which gave all but one item category a "D" grade, meaning
unsatisfactory, inadequate, and in danger of failing. The list included drinking
water, wastewater treatment and handling, the electric power grid, airports and
aviation facilities, rail facilities and transportation, inland waterway
transportation, roads and highways, bridges, dams, hazardous waste, schools and
transit. Each category received a D. (4) (5) (6)
More than 4,000 dams in America were classified as unsafe and dangerous by the
American Society of Civil Engineers, who noted that failures were increasing at
a disturbing rate with about 40% of all US dam failures since 1875 having
occurred in only the last ten years. In one year, 2004, in only one county in
New Jersey, 30 different dams failed or were severely damaged due to heavy
rainfall. In only one 5-year period ending in 2006, 130 major dams failed and
the US experienced 1,000 of what the engineers called "dam incidents"
which revealed deficiencies so serious as to threaten the integrity of the dam.
In one major case, the US saved a dam only by opening the flood gates and
releasing all the water. Engineers claim the number of unsafe dams is
increasing much faster than those being repaired. (7) (8)
Before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, engineers wanted to
rebuild the levees to prevent their collapse, but the $1 billion cost was
unaffordable. After Katrina, the
federal government had to spend $17 billion on a poor-quality repair, leaving
many of the original problems unresolved.
The US has more than 300,000 Kms. of highways, most of which were built in the
1940s and 1950s and which have seldom received adequate maintenance. In Washington,
the nation's capital, 65% of all roads and highways today require either
substantial and expensive overhaul or total replacement. Many US states today
are tearing out their hard-surfaced highways, and reverting to gravel and
dirt-surfaced roads that were common in the 1950s, since the highways, like the
bridges, are nearing the end of their useful lives but no money is available
for the expensive repairs.
road tunnels are also in serious condition, including new ones which collapse
with some regularity, as occurred in downtown Boston in 2006. As with many
others, this collapse was not an "accident" as authorities initially
claimed, but was proven to have been caused by inferior quality, substandard
building materials and sloppy construction work, exacerbated by carelessness
and incompetence - the same issues the US likes to claim are endemic to China.
Every year, America’s aging sewer systems spill by some estimates millions of
cubic meters of untreated sewage, contaminating freshwater rivers and creating
enormous health hazards. The US power grid is increasingly unable to carry its
loads, regularly disrupting the nation and leaving entire cities without power.
Derailments and other accidents occur almost daily on America's dilapidated and
unsafe rail network which, like the highways, has received only urgent patching
rather than proper maintenance and repair. The same is true for subways and
elevated inner-city rail systems like that in New York City; rickety, dirty, dangerous,
and looking for a reason to collapse. Many of America's airports and railway
stations compare unfavorably to those in third-world countries, and many of the
nation's schools are not measurably better. (11) (12) (13) (14) (15)
As one measure, China spends 9% of its GDP on infrastructure, while US
infrastructure expenditures peaked at 3% almost 60 years ago and have been
falling ever since. Where China and other Western nations and developing
countries have been increasing their investment in physical stock, the US has
gone in the opposite direction, leaving a legacy of a crumbling nation already
hopelessly in debt and without the means to change direction. (16) (17) (18)
It's worthy of note that various portions of the US government, the World Bank,
the IMF, 'economics professors' like Michael Pettis, and others, voice a
unanimous and increasingly strident insistence that China immediately abandon
its capital investment infrastructure programs as 'unsustainable', and develop
its economy in true American fashion by encouraging Chinese to max out their
credit cards, thereby "rebalancing" China's economy in a
"sustainable" fashion. And thus joining the West in its imminent
are two causal explanations for this massive deterioration in the American
physical stock that exists in no other nation in the world. The first is
clearly that for the past 60 years the US government spent its cash and ten
trillions in borrowed money on wars of cannibalisation for the benefit of the
top 1% who don't take the subway and aren't interested in your leaking sewers.
The second clear cause has been the privatisation of the nation's
infrastructure. The bankers and private equity companies took control of much
of America's physical stock solely to extract the value from those assets, a
process not assisted by expenditures on maintenance, repair, or long-term
investment. A toll highway for which private investors pay $2 billion may
provide an extraction of perhaps $20 billion in profits, but repairs other than
the most minimal and urgent cannot fit into this picture.
Based on the creed of profit maximisation, the most financially-sound plan is
to calibrate maintenance and repairs to the precise extent that when the asset
is returned at the end of the lease, its value will have depreciated to zero.
In other words, the asset itself is slowly cannibalised over the term of the
lease, to enhance the profits. But in a truly bizarre turn of events, US
bankers and media supporters are now claiming that a solution to the US'
overwhelming infrastructure problems is to transfer yet another $500 billion in
public assets to private owners.
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Larry Romanoffis a retired management consultant and businessman. He
has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and
owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor
at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international
affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently
writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He can
be contacted at: email@example.com. He
is a frequent contributor to Global Research.