American infrastructure: how screwed?

For years I’ve been seeing specials or reading articles about how American infrastructure is in big trouble.

Electrical grids
Levees (e.g. California)
Water treatment / storm drains

Too expensive to update or maintain, but too expensive not to – unless we want to experience a decline in our standard of living. “The United States is losing the Cold War more slowly than the Soviets.” And so on. So how bad do you think it’ll be? Will we muddle through, maybe have some rough spots here and there but basically be OK, or will future contractions of American power and wealth due to decades of foreign over reach and idiotic domestic economic policies bite us in the ass? Or is all this just a more sophisticated means than Mexicans or Arabs to scare middle class white people?

It’s crazy when you ponder how modern of a country we are yet our infrastructure seems to be crumbling beneath our feet. Poor planning, population explosions, second-rate engineering, business-as-usual attitudes; take your pic of the why’s but there’s some serious work to do to make sure we don’t finally screw ourselves. One of the reasons I chose to major in Environmental Engineering is because I was tired of supposedly doing good work but never being able to see the changes enacted. Who’s to say though? We might be on the cusp of a 21st century rennaissance of sorts.

The New Orleans disaster most likely could’ve been prevented too. I had saw programs PBS that were aired two years before Katrina saying, what happened, would basically happened if something weren’t done. Of course it wasn’t.

I think you got your answer there. Nothing will be done till it has to be done. Look at NEw Orleans it’s a city below sea level and the rebuilt it below sea level. The coasts continue to attract more and more people.

If they’re not gonna PREVENT problems no one’s gonna be proactive to fix something before it’s officially broke.

To be honest, I’ve been hearing about “America’s crumbling infrastructure” since the 1970’s. It’s a trope/meme that’s as old as the country itself, I bet. The only one more common, imho, is “America’s failing schools”.

I think the system is skewed by local influences. More things should be centralized.
For example, when the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was hit by a quake: One section fell, dooming one driver. They could have just extended the supports at that one point (the bridge’s only dog-leg) for $10Million. Or retrofit the entire bridge for $250Million. Would have been fine for another 70 years. Or create a new “flat bridge” with no tower for $1Billion.
But Jerry Brown, then mayor of Oakland wanted “a world class signature bridge” and it ran up to $3Billion with new estimates every year. This is the same guy who, in the '70s, stopped all highway construction, leaving San Jose with a half-built “intersection to nowhere”. He wouldn’t spend money then except in Sacramento.
The irony is that the “world class” part will not be visible from Oakland except as a tiny tower in the background of aerial photos.
The moral is that when local people are in charge of spending state money they go nuts. And the rest of the state has crappy infrastructure.

I hardly think that the engineering done in the U.S. is second-rate. The main problem has been funding for maintenance and construction of replacment infrastructure. People (especially politicians) don’t like to spend money on things that are going to be buried in the ground and forgotten. I also think you lost a “k” there.

To answer the OP’s question, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been putting out a “report card” on the state of U.S. infrastructure since 1988. Here is a link to the Executive Summary of the 2009 report.

The report details several key areas and gives them a grade. From the 2009 report:
Aviation D
Bridges C
Dams D
Drinking Water D
Energy D+
Hazardous Waste D
Inland Waterways D
Public Parks and Recreation C
Rail C
Roads D
Schools D
Solid Waste C+
Transit D
Wastewater D

A more detailed summary of the condition of each of those categories can be found in the Executive Summary. It is too lengthy to paste here.
*So how bad do you think it’ll be? *
I think that some funding will be made available in the next few years, but not at the desired level.

Will we muddle through, maybe have some rough spots here and there but basically be OK,
Everyone will be OK except those unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. See the Dec 23, 2008 water main break in Montgomery County, MD.

Or is all this just a more sophisticated means than Mexicans or Arabs to scare middle class white people?
I beg your pardon?

Have the report’s findings changed significantly since 1988?

The problems have been the same type of problems, but the condition of the infrastructure has been deteriorating more rapidly than maintenance or replacement has been occuring. In other words, we haven’t been keeping up.

From Page 6 of the Executive Summary.

And lets not forget Boston’s Big Dig.
In reality, American’s infrastructure will probably always be “just good enough”. Nothing spectacular, but good enough to get you from point A to point B without collapsing (much).

True that. Part of the reason is because other developed countries had to rebuild much of their infrastructure from scratch following WWII. If you’re going to rebuild, of course you’re going to rebuild with the latest technology. So American infrastructure has lagged for quite a while, simply because we did not go through this process of destruction and reconstruction. And the superiority of other countries has to do with history as much as with government policy.

A big part of the problem: city governments that DON’T do any preventative maintanence. The city I live in (in MA) lets things fall aprt-and then builds new structures (at many times the cost). We have build 5 new schools-yet, fixing the older schools would have cost less. The issue is:
-political corruption (kickbacks from construction contracts)
-state-subsidized financing of new schoold buildings (the state pays 80% of the financing for new buildings, NOTHING for repair/upkeep of old buildings
So we have new schools and lousy, potholed roads. The politicians love it!

Or alternatively maintain/replace. Things which were meant to have a design life of 30 to 50 years are serving twice that long, because nobody wants to pay for it.

I think that’s so, and it’s because that’s all the citizens are willing to pay for. Grudgingly at that.

People don’t really care until it starts interfering with their commute.

I think people are underestimating how much maintenance is actually done. Especially up here in the Northeast with our weather. But it does seem like there certainly is a ton of waste and corruption.

Right. And that’s what I was alluding to with “wrong place at the wrong time”. People don’t really care that the storm sewer in their neighborhood is old and falling apart until a sinkhole forms and swallows their SUV.

Certainly a good bit of maintenance is being done. But city manager can tell you that pouring money into decades-old water and sewer mains is not attractive to the people who sit on the council - so it’s been the minimum. On average, that is; some areas obviously do a better job than others.

Absolutely. Unfortunately, waste & corruption seem to go hand in hand with politics.

NinetyWt mentioned the design life with respect to maintenance issues, but another side of that is the contrast between the design parameters of a thirty year old system and the actual growth that’s taken place in those thirty years. If the actual population growth in an area outstrips the projections that were used as the basis for design, then something has to give. Either the infrastructure is going to perform below spec or require more maintenance; it’s also going to have to be upgraded or replaced earlier than projected.

An article in Science (link goes to a summary - pm me if you’re interested in the full article) last year brought up a new concern - the use of past observations of the environment to predict future conditions. In water supply designs, for example, the projected availability of water is based on current allocations (in places where water is limited) and historical flows and water levels. Climate change and overuse of resources are making those projections less reliable than they have been in the past, and it’s only going to get more difficult to make good predictions of future conditions.