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With increasing frequency either an actual or threatened disaster highlights the state of America’s aging infrastructure. Another potentially catastrophic situation arose in Northern California over the weekend.
Nearly 200,000 people were told to evacuate after a huge hole appeared in a severely damaged spillway below the country’s tallest dam. Heavy rains in recent months had pushed water levels to historic highs at Lake Oroville. The reservoir supplies water to central and southern portions of California.
The president wants to spend a trillion dollars fixing what’s broken and in need of repair. Who pays for that? And what exactly would he spend it on?
- David Hayes Past deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the U.S. Department of the Interior for both Presidents Clinton and Obama; currently distinguished lecturer in law at the Stanford Law School and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
- Stephen Moore Senior fellow on economics, The Heritage Foundation; senior economic adviser to the Trump campaign.
- Greg DiLoreto Chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers' Committee for America's Infrastructure; 2013 president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The Scope Of America's Infrastructure
Repairing, or even just maintaining, America’s aging infrastructure is a huge job. The Federal Highway Administration reports there are over 600,000 road and rail bridges in the country. The advocacy group Transportation for America mapped all of the bridges in 2015, noting which ones were, at the time, in urgent need of maintenance.
Likewise, there are about 80,000 dams in the United States. Some of these are small and create tiny reservoirs for use by only a few individuals. Some are massive, like Oroville or Hoover. In a report on dams for Nova, Anna Lieb quotes Dartmouth geography professor Frank Magilligan saying “We as a nation have been building, on average, one dam per day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.”
Lieb charted this in the graphic below, which shows the number of dams completed each year for two centuries.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers keeps track of all these dams, and state-by-state information on dams is available online.
The Personal Cost Of Aging Infrastucture
The American Society of Civil Engineers regularly releases report cards for the nation’s infrastructure. Often, the grades are poor. The ASCE argues this isn’t just a safety issue, but a financial one. According to the society’s calculations, our-of-date infrastructure costs the average household $3,400 a year.
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