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The Rise and Fall of US Infrastructure Part III: Conclusion

In Parts I and II of this series I covered the history and impact of the construction of infrastructure in the United States, as well as the dynamics behind its slide into its current state of decay.  In the near future we will need to get serious about making repairs and improvements, but before we do so it is certainly worth some time and effort to consider what infrastructure we need to have in place for a prosperous and healthy 21st century.  This analysis can help us to determine if we should fix the infrastructure that we have or replace it with something else.

As we discussed in Part I, the installation of sewer systems in cities drastically reduced the spread of disease.  However, while they may have been a public health miracle, sewers are an engineering design failure.  If you are trying to manage a waste stream as an engineer, the two things you absolutely want to avoid are increasing the volume of the waste or transporting the waste over long distances.  Both of these factors dramatically decrease the efficiency and increase the cost of treating the waste.  Flush toilets and sewer systems include both of these shortcomings.  Even low-flow toilets dramatically add to the volume of waste and expensive sewer systems must be installed to transport the waste stream over long distances to reach treatment facilities.

The best engineering approach to managing human waste is the composting toilet.  In this case, little or no water is added.  Decomposition occurs at high enough temperatures to sterilize the waste, which can then be used to fertilize your rose bushes.  Also, contrary to what you may be thinking, modern composting toilets do not smell.  Given that one of the defining characteristics of the 21st century will be a limitation of fresh water supply, there is almost certainly going to be a movement towards composting toilets.  Therefore, we should carefully evaluate large investments in sewer system expansions.  Keep an eye out for high-end housing developments in California offering only composting toilets as the leading edge of this wave.

During the 20th century we built our world to accommodate personal automobile use with highways, suburbs, and distant shopping malls and food stores.  From an engineering standpoint, transportation efficiency should be judged by energy expended per person-mile of travel.  It would be rather difficult to come up with a less efficient way of shuttling ourselves around between this distanct points in single-occupant automobiles.  I suppose that a fleet of personal helicopters would be worse.

In the coming decades I anticipate a reduction in personal automobile use.  As this trend develops, you can expect rural roads to return to cheaper-to-maintain gravel rather than pavement (this is already happening in Texas) as well as projects to convert car lanes on highways to light rail.  We can’t keep building highways to the near exclusion of other transit systems.  If you are skeptical look to China.  As I write this column, a traffic jam on a Chinese highway has entered its 10th day.  Seriously, people have been stuck on the road moving slowly for 10 days.  Food vendors have lined the highways to cater to them while they wait.

With ample justification, I am often accused of being a bit pessimistic in these columns.  So let me highlight that, although the commentary above is a criticism, I think much of our infrastructure investment over the last 200 years was well spent.  Here are some examples.

    • Our freight train network is a great national asset and should be repaired and expanded.  Of particular benefit is raising bridges to allow trains to carry two levels of containers to ocean ports where they can be loaded on to ships.

 

    • Our investment in an extensive national electricity grid was money well spent.  This system should be repaired as well as upgraded with smart grid technology, which reduces line losses and facilitates the incorporation of locally generated wind and solar panels.

 

    • The U.S. is also well served by our networks of hospitals, schools, and universities.

 
As we consider our local infrastructure, we need maintain and repair our storm water system capacity and our aging schools.  Looking toward the future I’d like to see us get serious about bike and pedestrian facilities, and continue to invest in systems to support a more localized food network. With these and other investment, irrespective of what decisions our federal government makes, the Chapelboro area will be better able to face the challenges of this century.

Have a comment or question?  Use the comment interface below or send me an email at commonscience@chapelboro.com.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/common-science/the-rise-and-fall-of-us-infrastructure-part-iii-conclusion/

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

In Part I of this series I reviewed the rise of infrastructure in the United States.  This week we will explore the fall and how it came to be that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has given the current condition of our infrastructure a D+ grade due to crumbling roads and bridges, leaking water mains, and many other deteriorating systems.

There is no particular mystery in determining why our critical infrastructure systems are falling into a state of decay.  According to data from the Congressional Budget Office, the spending on transportation and water systems as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from 5% in 1960 to less than 3% today.  Given that current U.S. GDP is approximately 15 trillion dollars, this two percent reduction corresponds to a $300 billion “shortfall” in infrastructure investment.

If this was an ordinary news article on infrastructure spending, we would be finished now.  But here in Common Science, we delve a bit further into matters and try to find the root causes.  Below I propose three contributing factors to why I think we have stopped investing adequately in our infrastructure, one psychological, one political, and one thermodynamic.

Psychological

Building new things is a lot more fun and interesting than maintaining old ones.  Let’s consider some local examples.  When we decided that we needed an upgraded library in town we passed bonds, held fund raisers, and poured champagne at the grand opening.  (Please note, this is not a criticism of the new library which I think was a great investment.)  In contrast, just up Estes Drive from our beautiful new library are two aging schools, Phillips Middle and Estes Hills Elementary, which struggle each year to scrape together sufficient funds to fix leaking roofs and repair broken sidewalks.  At the church my family attends, the parish has raised and borrowed millions of dollars to build a brand new fellowship hall, yet the historic original chapel is in desperate need of a paint job.  This same dynamic is operative at the national level, where our legislators are much more inclined to allocate funds to splashy new construction projects rather than spend money on mundane things like repairing storm water systems.

Political

For the past five years President Obama has recommend a broad array of infrastructure investments to grow our economy and secure our economic future.  During most of our history as a nation these would have been considered non-controversial suggestions and enjoyed broad partisan support.  Consider that the three major pieces of national infrastructure legislation that I discussed in Part I were all signed into law by Republican presidents, the US Highway Act of 1924 by Coolidge, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 by Eisenhower, and the Clean Water Act of 1972 by Nixon.

Unfortunately, the political climate in the U.S. has turned against infrastructure projects with Republicans decrying them as socialism and Democrats shying away from supporting them for fear of being labeled “tax and spend” liberals.  As a result, President Obama’s recommendations for infrastructure investment have mostly foundered in Congress.  If our current infrastructure is to be repaired and the infrastructure we need for the future is to be built, this political climate will need to change.

Thermodynamic

During most of the 20th century when the U.S. was pouring money into infrastructure systems, a substantial portion of the funding came from fees and taxes collected from the oil industry.  The oil industry experienced tremendous growth from its infancy around the year 1900 until its peak year of production in 1972, with an output of 9.5 million barrels a day.  Profits and taxes from the oil companies in the 1950s and 1960s helped to build our highways, fund the space program, finance the construction of suburbia and pay for the Vietnam War.  It was easy money.

From 1972 to 2006, U.S. oil production fell steadily to only 5 million barrels a day, a 48% reduction from its peak.  Around 2006, oil companies in the U.S. started to utilize horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to aggressively exploit low-purity oil deposits which are contained in shale rock formations.  These operations have increased U.S. oil production to its current level of 6.2 million barrels a day, leading to splashy headlines stating that U.S. oil production is up by 20% over the last few years.

So if U.S. oil production is up by 20% since 2006 why aren’t we back to the days of easy money and fixing our roads and bridges?  The answer is a thermodynamic one.  Back in the 1960s when you could drill into easy-to-reach, easy-to-pump, high purity oil deposits, we could expect a thermodynamic return of twenty units of oil energy for every unit of energy expended during extraction. This ratio is called energy returned over energy invested, or EROEI.  Due to the difficulties in extracting and processing it, shale oil production has an EROEI of only five making it a far less profitable enterprise than exploiting traditional oil deposits.

Conclusion

Whatever the psychological, political, and thermodynamic challenges may be, we will eventually need to address the issues arising from our crumbling infrastructure.  However, there is an important question to ask first.  Do we have the correct infrastructure for the 21st century?  If so, then we should get busy repairing it.  If not, we should consider making some changes going forward.  I will address those issues next week in Part III, the conclusion of this series.

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

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.

Have a comment or question?  Use the comment interface below or send me an email to commonscience@chapelboro.com.

(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.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/common-science/the-rise-and-fall-of-u-s-infrastructure-part-i-the-rise/