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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

The Rise and Fall of U.S. Infrastructure Part I: The Rise

By Jeff Danner Posted August 25, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Infrastructure in the United States has fallen into a state of decay. Bridges are collapsing, roads are deteriorating, and aging sewer lines are leaking.  The 2013 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a grade of D+ and called for $3.6 trillion in infrastructure by 2020.  The story of the rise and fall of U.S infrastructure is an interesting one, especially if you are an engineer.  So much so, that I am preparing a three part series.  Part I covers the history and impact of infrastructure investment in the U.S.  Part II will address how and why we have neglected the upkeep of our infrastructure, and I will conclude in Part III with some thoughts on whether we have invested our infrastructure money wisely these last several hundred years.

The rise of civilizations and economies are strongly dependent upon infrastructure investments which employ large numbers of people and lay the groundwork for further economic development.  The rise of the United States from a country of only modest importance in 1850 to a superpower in the late 20th century can be tracked by our massive infrastructure investments in sewers, railroads, highways and many other important systems.

If you want to build a civilization you need cities which can efficiently share important resources like ports, universities, electrical grids, hospitals and bagel shops.  In order for people to live together in cities, you need a sewer system or the population will start to die of cholera, typhoid and dysentery.  The installation of sewer systems in American cities began in the 1850s in Brooklyn and Chicago and continued rapidly from there to nearly every city and town in the country.  Early sewer systems, while keeping waste out of the city streets, disgorged their untreated contents into local waterways, much to the chagrin and disadvantage of people downstream.

In order to stop polluting the water of downstream communities, treatment of sewage prior to discharge began in the late 1800s, with the first system installed in Worchester, MA.  These treatment systems only removed solid materials from the sewage, which is known as primary treatment.  While this was helpful in preventing disease in downstream communities, it does not remove dissolved chemicals which continued to negatively impact fish and other wildlife. (1)

Sewage systems limited to primary treatment were the norm for most U.S. cities until President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act in 1972.  The Clean Water Act required sewer systems to add secondary treatment which removes chemicals from the sewage and also uses chlorine to kill residual bacteria. By 1980, over a century’s worth of public investments and improvements in governmental regulation provided the U.S. with arguably the best sewer system in the world, supporting large, prosperous and healthy cites.

Once the investment in sewers had facilitated the growth of cities, we needed to find ways to connect them, which spurred remarkable growth in railroads.  Between the time that the B&O Railroad was formed in 1820, and 1916, the year in which railroad mileage in the U.S. hit its peak, 254,251 miles of rail were laid in the U.S., including the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.  The benefit of this massive effort persists today, with U.S freight trains transporting more that two billion tons of goods per year.

The next massive investment in transportation infrastructure was the construction of our highways under the directive of two federal legislative actions.  The first major effort began with the U.S. Highway Act of 1925, the origin of such famous roads as Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles and Route 1 along the eastern seaboard from Maine to Key West.  The roads built under this legislation are given significant credit for the efficient mobilization of soldiers and materials for U.S. military efforts in World War II. Perhaps due to this observation, former General and then President Eisenhower authorized the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, which over the next 35 years produced our national superhighways, including our own Route 40 right here in North Carolina.

As an engineer, I am quite tempted to tell you the story of other U.S. infrastructure efforts, including the pipeline network, dams, airports and many others.  However, with these several examples, I hope I have laid out for you that national infrastructure investments from 1850 to 1980 drove the rise of the United States as a global superpower and were essential to the creation of our prosperous middle class.

Then something changed. National infrastructure projects fell out of favor and monies to maintain the existing infrastructure, as a percentage of gross national product, were reduced.  Next week in Part II, I’ll lay out thoughts on how this sad circumstance arose.

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(1) Lest we look back smugly at our 19th century ancestors, let’s confront the fact that we continue to struggle with this issue today.  One of the key problems with effluent from a sewer system limited to primary treatment is that is has high levels of dissolved organic chemicals which contain nitrogen and phosphorous.  When released into waterways, the nitrogen and phosphorus spur rapid growth of algae.  The algae have short life spans and when they die they sink to the bottom of the water and form sludge. (2)   The sludge on the bottom represents a sort of Golden Corral® buffet for bacteria.  As they chow down on the algae sludge, the bacteria also use up the dissolved oxygen in the water, causing fish and other creatures in the water to suffocate and wildlife dependent on these species for food to starve.

With secondary treatment included in our treatment plants, we prevent our sewage effluent from causing these algae blooms.  Where we still run into trouble is with storm water runoff, particularly from our housing developments where lawn fertilizers can wash into our water ways to feed the algae.  The legislation designed to protect Jordan and Falls Lakes from fertilizer-infused storm water runoff was recently overturned by our Republican-controlled legislature in Raleigh.  So the battle for clean water continues.

(2) OK, I realize that I have now fallen into Inception of the footnotes, but as they are footnotes, I figure I have free reign to ramble on a bit.  When algae sludge falls to the bottom of the water and there is sufficient oxygen it is consumed by bacteria as food.  If the sludge gets buried in mud, keeping oxygen and, thus, bacteria away, the algae corpses slowly breakdown into hydrocarbons.  Over a period of several hundred million years, this is the process which gave us petroleum.

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