No light at the end of the tunnel for US infrastructure

WASHINGTON - As the Amtrak train between Washington and New York City approaches the Portal Bridge in New Jersey, it cuts its speed by a third - slowing down from about 140kmh to 90kmh.

It does this not because it is coming to a bend in the track or to minimise noise. It slows down to try and minimise damage to the 105-year-old crumbling bridge.

And that isn't even the biggest issue with this key link in the busy US North-east rail corridor.

On several occasions, the Portal Bridge - which pivots to let boats through - has become stuck in the open position, causing long delays.

Despite the problems, there are no immediate plans to invest the US$1 billion (S$1.34 billion) needed to rebuild the bridge. And more worryingly, the Portal Bridge is by no means an exceptional example.

As New York Senator Chuck Schumer said last week: "Throughout the North-east corridor, Amtrak has some infrastructure that is so old, it was built and put into service when Jesse James and Butch Cassidy were still alive and robbing trains."

Travel farther north on the train and it passes through the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River. The tunnel, another century-old piece of infrastructure, was filled with saltwater during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and engineers estimate it can be safely used for only another 20 years at most.

Keep going and the train has to slow down again, this time to cross the 113-year-old Pelham Bay Bridge, another linkway that periodically gets stuck after opening to let boats through.

Nearby is the Tappan Zee Bridge, a seven-lane road thoroughfare that sheds concrete into the river below so frequently it has been called the "hold your breath bridge".

Spalling concrete is also a problem at the Greenfield Bridge in Pittsburgh, so much so that a structure had to be built under the elevated highway to protect cars passing under it from falling pieces.

Though the problems have been brewing for years, the state of America's crumbling infrastructure has come under scrutiny again due to an ongoing fight over infrastructure funding in Congress and the deadly railway accident in Pennsylvania on May 12.

Just days after the accident, the House of Representatives voted to cut US$250 million from Amtrak's funding this year and later postponed passage of a new highway funding Bill.

The Highway Trust Fund that pays for a broad range of transport infrastructure runs out of money at the end of this month but lawmakers are nowhere near an agreement on how to make the fund solvent again.

The scarcity of funding stands in stark contrast to the need.

The American Society of Civil Engineering estimates that US$3.6 trillion needs to be invested in US infrastructure by 2020 to bring it up to scratch.

Its 2013 report card on infrastructure - something it publishes every four years - gave the country a D+ grade. And though the society is not completely objective, most agree there is a growing problem.

Amtrak, the US national passenger rail operator, estimates it needs US$21 billion to get its infrastructure into a state of good repair. A similar amount is required to repair the country's 84,000 dams. Many have long gone without inspection, a hazard given that the average age of dams is 52 years.

The World Economic Forum ranks the US 16th in terms of quality of transport infrastructure. Switzerland is first and Singapore is fifth.

That the state of American infrastructure has deteriorated to this level has much to do with how its funding model is hopelessly out of date.

The Highway Trust Fund has long been funded through the use of a tax on petrol, which used to provide more than enough money to build all the infrastructure the US needed, especially during the boom in the mid-20th century.

But that model no longer works, says Mr Robert Puentes, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Programme.

"The challenge we have now is that all that is different," he said.

"The metro areas are not expanding like they were in the 1950s and 1960s... Huge demographic shifts that were responsible for much of that growth - women entering the workforce, civil rights - have played themselves out a little bit more insofar as there are no new workers that are now driving.

And when we do drive, we drive much more fuel-efficient cars, consuming less gasoline and driving at a per capita level is actually dropping. All of those things mean we need a different system to pay for it."

What that should look like is a contentious issue politically, especially since it would likely require either a new form of tax or raising the petrol tax.

Some states are beginning to try new models of funding, but efforts are on a small scale right now. For instance, a pilot programme in Oregon in July would have a group of volunteers pay tax according to how far they drive, rather than their petrol use.

Most do not see any improvement over the short term. Indeed, none of the candidates running for the presidency next year has made infrastructure investment an issue.

Mr Andy Herrmann, the past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, admits that the conversation is going nowhere at the moment: "This is an issue that involves spending money and anyone who runs for office doesn't want to talk about spending money. Nobody is talking about what people would get for the money."

This article was first published on May 26, 2015.
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