Public Safety, National Security: America’s 21st-Century Infrastructure Agenda

09/05/2007 |

America's aging cities and critical infrastructure are in need of repair and replacement after years of neglect and deferred maintenance. Much of the current built environment, above and below ground, was designed and completed over 50 years ago. The maintenance bill is now overdue.

The August 2007 collapse of the I-35 Bridge in Minnesota focused on an issue that many older cities and communities have long grappled with: Finding the political capital and public officials who will champion funding for repair, replacement, and maintenance of critical infrastructure has always been a challenge.

This issue goes far beyond structurally unsound bridges and the huge sums needed to fix them. It concerns commitment on the part of elected leaders and public officials charged with ensuring public safety, homeland security, and environmental policies that protect, not endanger, public health.

Funding infrastructure maintenance and repairs doesn’t provide good photo ops, ribbon cuttings, naming rights, or local press. But, the public rightfully expects that taxes and tolls will cover ongoing maintenance and upgrades, not pork barrel projects like the Alaskan bridge to nowhere, or the Florida highway extension in a district that didn’t want it.

America’s mayors, governors, Congress, and the next U.S. President face an important leadership challenge of rebuilding America’s infrastructure.

The Aging of American Infrastructure
In the last several years, New York City, representative of other aging cities, has faced many hazardous and often fatal scenarios that have brought daily life and commerce to a halt for days or weeks at a time. Whether caused by accidents, sheer neglect, malfeasance, or, potentially, terrorism, the net result is the same: loss of life, businesses, jobs, revenues, transportation, and utilities, along with potential hazardous materials in the air and the inability to get to one’s home because it’s in a police-sanctioned frozen zone.

Infrastructure protection is a Homeland Security issue. Here is a top 10 list of what New York, and many other cities, have experienced or can expect to see in the years ahead:

  1. Underground steam pipe eruptions. During the summer of 2007, an 83-year-old steam pipe in Midtown Manhattan burst suddenly, causing death and disruption to businesses, residences, and subway lines for days. Older pipe sections nearby are over 123 years old and have yet to be replaced.
  2. Electrical blackouts. The Northeast national power grid reportedly lacks redundancy and flexibility. High summer demands for power result in cascading failures and brownouts, as in California. The 2003 blackout, which affected several states and parts of Canada, was caused by a failure outside local jurisdiction.
  3. Subway stops. Torrential rains have closed New York subway lines during the summer of 2007 because the pumps that keep tunnels dry for the third rail are quickly overwhelmed. Old wiring is flammable; a 2005 fire almost shut one line down for 5 years. Switching failures lead to derailments and collisions.
  4. Water main breaks. Sinkholes aren’t only for rural areas with abandoned coal mines. Heavy vehicular traffic over old cast iron pipes causes vibration, cracks, pressure, rust, leaks, and eventual street cave-ins and floods.
  5. Gas main explosions. In New York City, gas main explosions have occurred during repairs. When a backhoe hit a pipe in error in 1999 (and 1989), it resulted in major fires, power outages, loss of transit service, and death.
  6. Exploding manhole covers. Whether due to exposure to the elements or rodents, electrical insulation eventually smolders, releasing gas, smoke, and pressure. The build-up can cause manholes to explode into the air from urban sidewalks. Five heavy manholes popped up near NYC’s busy Port Authority Terminal in September 2004. With the electrical grid at capacity in many urban areas, and with dense new development and increased power demands in the works, this situation is not easily solved. Con Edison (the main NYC electric utility provider) has the equivalent of a 50-year cable replacement cycle.
  7. Bridge collapses. The August 2007 I-35 Bridge collapse raised public awareness about structural integrity of bridges across the United States and the severe need for repair, maintenance, and replacement. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card 2005, 27 percent of America’s bridges are structurally deficient or structurally obsolete, with $1.6 trillion needed over a 5-year period to bring the nation's infrastructure to good condition.
  8. Overloaded sewer systems. In most cities, wastewater goes to treatment plants. Open, green spaces in urban areas decrease with rising land values and urban development, while rooftops, parking lots, and roads, all impervious to water, increase. After moderate or heavy rains, drainage and sewer systems become overloaded, increasing the risk of flooding and potentially causing an onrush from storm drains that overwhelms systems, sending untreated raw sewage into rivers and waterways. Ongoing dense and high-rise development exacerbates the problem, making the cost of improving sewer infrastructure prohibitive in most communities. Green roofs, which replace impervious traditional roofs with roof gardens, can substantially reduce stormwater runoff and lessen the burden on aging wastewater systems. This approach has been successful in Chicago and other cities.
  9. Cornice crashes. The freeze-thaw cycle takes a toll on aging buildings more than a few stories high and can cause heavy stone cornices to fall on unsuspecting pedestrians. After a falling cornice killed a student in 1979, New York City enacted Local Law 10, calling for regular façade inspections every 5 years of buildings higher than 6 stories.
  10. Raining bricks. Many commercial and residential buildings built during New York’s 1960s construction boom were subject to less stringent building, fire, egress, and safety codes than are in force today. Some curtainwall sheathing these buildings may be only one brick thick, using small steel straps to attach the curtainwall to the structural steel frame. Typically, the steel straps are good for about 30 years before they begin to rust and need replacement. After bricks fell from a vintage 1960s Manhattan residential building, NYC mandated inspections.

The Benefits of Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure
Reliable, well-planned, and well-maintained infrastructure creates safe, secure, livable, and desirable communities. The building industry is a major economic engine and source of jobs in the United States and for the global economy. Rebuilding America’s cities and infrastructure creates new jobs, requiring highly trained professionals, as well as moderately skilled and unskilled laborers that strengthen local, regional, and national economies.

Rebuilding America’s infrastructure keeps people working, by ensuring the public they can travel to work on a train, plane, bridge, or in a car or tunnel in relative safety. Infrastructure that is designed and built according to the latest codes and standards enhances public safety, because new technology, materials, and appropriate security and surveillance measures will also be addressed.

Architect of the Capitol
A related issue that has arisen during the summer of 2007 concerns the stewardship of the nation’s icon of democracy: the U.S. Capitol. The Architect of the Capitol, a position appointed by the President, should be a licensed architect, not an engineer, construction manager, lobbyist, or executive. The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) is the protector of over 2 centuries’ worth of artistic and architectural heritage, the infrastructure of democracy.

According to Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress, a Congressional Selection Commission, comprised of leaders of both the House and Senate, submitted a list of three AOC candidates to the White House during the summer of 2007. President Bush must nominate an individual, who does not have to be one of the three recommended by Congress, for confirmation by the Senate.

As of Sept. 4, 2007, the names of the nominees have not been released, and insiders believe that at least one of the nominees is not a licensed architect. Two August 2007 letters from the American Institute of Architects’ EVP/CEO and AIA Board of Directors seeking further information have gone unanswered by the White House.

In July 2007, Architect Alan M. Hantman, FAIA, the former Architect of the Capitol, received a Distinguished Service Award from the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) Intl. Hantman served the U.S. Congress and the public as a Presidential appointee and is an active member of BOMA and AIA. He served with distinction as Architect of the Capitol for a full 10-year term.

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