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An Infrastructure Divide

943cbb8ff8cd6b95a6d7a12b5dac3e6e_f23I read a lot of pieces about failing infrastructure in the US.  When I finish one, I usually complain about how I seem to be living in a completely different country than the one described in the article. Last month, The Atlantic ran a piece about the problem of combined storm and sanitary sewer systems in the US.  Such systems are prone to overflows of raw sewage into nearby rivers and lakes when it rains hard [1].  One of the links in that article leads to the EPA map shown here, which identifies the largest of the 770 or so combined sewer systems in the US.

UntitledThe American Society of Civil Engineers provides annual (very pessimistic) reports on the nation’s infrastructure.  Regional cost estimates in their 2013 report (PDF) reflect the same geographical distribution shown in the map: per-capita costs to fix wet weather overflows are significant only in the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, and New England regions.  Wastewater handling expenses are anticipated to be much higher in the Mid-Atlantic region than elsewhere.

Correcting the overflows inherent in combined systems is expensive.  The basic strategy is to dig a very large hole in the ground, usually in the form of a tunnel.  Sewer overflows go into these large concrete-lined tunnels instead of the rivers and lakes.  The overflow is pumped out of the tunnels later for treatment.  Washington, DC is about halfway through a 20-year $2.6B project to eliminate most of the three billion gallons of untreated sewage released into nearby rivers annually.  The project involves boring 13 miles of 25-foot-wide tunnels at a depth of more than hundred feet below the city.  Milwaukee has reduced its sewage releases into Lake Michigan by almost 80% by digging a longer, deeper tunnel — at a cost of over $3B.  In round numbers, more than a new NFL stadium, less than a major airport.

A bit over half the cost of the Milwaukee system, which began construction in 1983, was in the form of federal grants.  The federal government has discontinued making grants for such purposes, issuing limited loans instead.  The EPA estimates that the total cost of upgrading the combined systems across the country at about $90B; the ASCE estimates are significantly higher.  In many cases, local governments are not going to be able to afford the kinds of construction needed to fix the problem.  Detroit, poster child for the Rust Belt, is an example.  This Scientific American piece summarizes the city’s situation: frequent overflows, bankruptcy, massive debt, shrinking population, and long-term climate predictions that include more frequent heavy-precipitation events.  There will be pressure to turn a local problem into a state one, and state problems into federal ones.

By contrast, I live in a metropolitan area characterized by sustained rapid growth for the last few decades and as a consequence, has large amounts of shiny new infrastructure.  My suburb (population now greater than 100K) has a large new water treatment plant.  The next one north has built a new larger sewage treatment facility and uses the effluent to water its parks.  Every summer there’s inconvenient amounts of construction as new, bigger, better water and sanitary sewer infrastructure goes into the ground [2].  I anticipate a considerable amount of push-back from other regions if they’re asked to help pay for repairs and upgrades in the systems identified above.

[1] Separated systems, where storm water is seldom treated, have their own more modest sets of problems.  For example, runoff may carry small amounts of petrochemicals deposited on road surfaces by vehicles into the rivers and lakes.

[2] The same situation applies to many of the other kinds of infrastructure the ASCE complains about.  The airport is only 20 years old.  New light rail is going in.  The electric grid has been steadily expanded and upgraded.  Since major floods in the 1960s, extensive flood control structures have been built.


Image credits: Map showing locations of combined sewer systems by the US EPA.  Estimated cost bar graph by the ASCE.  Front page image is the State of Indiana’s official water quality advisory sign for parks and beaches (there’s a more serious “stay the hell out of the water” sign as well).

Staff Writer

Michael is a systems analyst, with a taste for obscure applied math. He's interested in energy supplies, the urban/rural divide, regional political differences in the US, and map-like things. Bicycling, and fencing (with swords, that is) act as stress relief. ...more →

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39 thoughts on “An Infrastructure Divide

  1. On the one hand, ASCE never met a problem that didn’t require a multi-billion dollar project involving cubic kilometers of concrete.

    On the other, old cities are tough to retrofit to modern environmental standards, because wastewater treatment plants require room. (Last I checked, the preferred design standard is to have first-flush stormwater diverted into the wastewater plant, to capture dog poop and other contaminants that get mobilized when it rains. The rest is safe to dump untreated into the nearest water body.) So how safe is safe? How often should raw sewage enter the drinking water? How many people are we willing to kill (on a statistical basis) due to contaminated drinking water? Even if we’re not killing people, contaminated water makes people sick, ruins fisheries, and is generally just gross.

    The State of California, by the way, should thank the gods of community activism that it never built the Peripheral Canal, which would have moved Northern California river water around the Bay/Delta through a very complicated series of surface canals. Climate change is real and sea levels are rising. That infrastructure would not have lasted.


  2. The Country is pretty big so I think a lot of things can be simultaneously true. A lot of infrastructure can be falling into disrepair and other places can be working really hard to update infrastructure.

    I imagine it involves a complex number of factors including wealth of community, general politics of a community, priorities, and also interstate stuff. There were a lot of stories from the end of last year about how Boston’s T and the NYC subways needed major amounts of upgrades and improvements. NYC’s subway money is always a fight of resentment between Upstate and NYC-Metro. For whatever reason, no governor has ever decided that all the voters in NYC-Metro might be better to please than the handful of voters in upstate NY. Cuomo called the MTA’s estimates bloated but he will spend lots of money on a small subway to LaGaurdia or JFK connection. The T is supposed to be even more in need of lots of upgrades.


    • The Country is pretty big so I think a lot of things can be simultaneously true. A lot of infrastructure can be falling into disrepair and other places can be working really hard to update infrastructure.

      In the instant case, we have a growing suburb. This suggests that there is money, that the existing infrastructure is clearly inadequate for the growing population, and that there is room to build new infrastructure without having to resort to costly and protracted eminent domain proceedings. In other words, just the sort of area where you would expect such projects unless the local voters are completely batshit crazy. And even then, a good storm with human feces in the streets can do wonders when voting on a bond initiative.


      • Right especially in the Denver-Boulder metro area which might skew left and for something that will make commuting easier. Sonoma and Marin are building a train between them.

        Though I have a hard time of thinking of a place with 100K residents as a suburb. You are a small city at that point.


        • A huge difference between western urban areas [1] compared to the areas farther east is the “structure” of the suburbs. To the east, the suburbs generally consist of a bazillion small towns. To the west, far fewer but much larger towns/cities. Abbott makes a big deal about this in The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the American West, asserting that it results in a very different political dynamic. Most of the western suburbs got “big” in the last 50-60 years — when the “campus” structure for development was dominant, rather than “downtown”. Aurora is Denver’s largest suburb at 350K. But just recently the mayor there said that when the next light rail line opens next year, it will finally be possible for the city to start creating an actual “downtown” core.

          [1] Broadly, cities from Denver west.


      • It’s not a structural problem, it’s the shifting poltical tides. First there was the American System and then it’s poltical opponents came into power and their wasn’t, then the civil war restored all the legacy non-slavery Whig ideas back to the forefront then cars came and the poltical system was rigged towards roads for 70 years though a whole lot of different dominant politics and economic conditions. Now, the political pendulum has swung towards skepticism of government spending, and it doesn’t help that management of big infrastructure projects seems to have lost its mojo, with everything too expensive, too delayed, and sometimes too substandard. Just this week we’re hearing of the Bay Bridge that was long delayed and over budget, and now has a major design flaw wrt water intrusion on the cable stays.


            • I think part of what Kolohe is getting at is that back in the day folks were (justifiably!) sold on the idea that gummental spending now will reap big economic rewards down the road (just across the newly constructed bridge…), and that idea held until around the early 70s-ish or so. So that part of the equation has changed.

              But you’re right: there’s nothing sexy about maintenance.


              • Well i think people want the services they want, they just don’t want to pay for them all that much for various reasons. Some of those reasons are “those people” or it’s always to expensive or i already paid my money so give me mine.


              • No, I’m saying back in the day there were the same political tensions between people who wanted to build lots of good stuff, people who only wanted parochial pork, and people ideologically opposed to any such government spending. Who is dominant among those three factions has ebbed and flowed over time, and due to quirks of history, the same anti-Clay Jacksonian Democrats are now Tea Party Republicans.

                But it has nothing to do with Senate overrepresentation of rural interests and only the slightest to do with regional resentment.


  3. As a homeowner, it always amazes me how much unglamorous stuff needs to be tweaked and maintained that people using the home day to day never notice unless it fails. Plumbing, wiring, insulation, water sealing, and HVAC all just sit quietly under the covers until something goes wrong, and then it’s an emergency. I’m the type of person who will spend part of a weekend under a sink bringing the plumbing arrangement up to code, but most people don’t get it when I tell them what I did. I started with a working sink and spent a day and some cash, and now I have a working sink with some rearranged pipes. I didn’t put in a sexy new fixture. No granite counter top was installed. I drool over things like a modern electrical panel or new rain gutters.

    My wife generally gives me a free hand to do these sorts of things, so I’m happy. I can’t imagine having to go before a committee of people who have the “It’s working, so why do you need to work on it?” attitude to do preventative maintenance and upgrades to bring infrastructure up to modern standards. I understand it, though. There’s a definite lack of sizzle in telling your constituents that you spent their money upgrading some hidden component in the (apparently working) sewer system when you could have built a bridge with that cash and had a sweet ribbon cutting ceremony.


  4. I don’t know about the US, but in Canada, it would be accurate that you effectively live in a different country – specifically, you don’t live on a native reservation. Many reserves have spent years living with things that would topple governments if white people experienced them for months.


    • Oh, it’s worse down here. Down here, some Indian reservations have functioned as rape preserves — places where the white folks go to rape women with very little in the way of consequences.


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