Engineers say that when infrastructure works, most people do not even think about it. But they recognize it when they turn on a faucet and water does not come out, when they see levees eroding or when they inch through traffic, the driver’s awareness of the highway growing mile after creeping mile.
President Biden has announced an ambitious $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would pump huge sums of money into improving the nation’s bridges, roads, public transportation, railways, ports and airports.
The plan faces opposition from Republicans and business groups, who point to the enormous cost and the higher corporate taxes that Mr. Biden has proposed to pay for it.
Still, leaders in both parties have long seen infrastructure as a possible unifying issue. Urban and rural communities, red and blue states, the coasts and the middle of the country: All are confronting weak and faltering infrastructure.
“It’s a dire need,” said Greg DiLoreto, a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which publishes an extensive report card on the subject every four years.
The 2020 report gave the country a grade of C-minus, a slight improvement after two decades of Ds. Far more needs to be done, Mr. DiLoreto said: “It’s a terrible report card to take home to your folks.”
Roadways and bridges are still in use decades after the end of their projected life spans. Sewer and water systems are aged and decaying. And a changing climate threatens to worsen old vulnerabilities and expose new ones.
In the broad contours of the plan released by the Biden administration, specific proposals and figures are given for some of these infrastructure needs. The plan, for instance, proposes an extra $115 billion to modernize bridges, highways and roads that are in “most critical need of repair.” But other projects, such as levee systems, are not explicitly mentioned, and it is unclear how they might factor into the proposal.
We took a look at seven examples of urgent infrastructure vulnerabilities across the country, ranging from specific projects to broader problems.
Deteriorating rail tunnels under the Hudson River
Connecting New York City to New Jersey
The 111-year-old tunnels used by commuter trains and Amtrak have deteriorated rapidly since Hurricane Sandy flooded them with salt water in 2012.
Officials in New York and New Jersey have beseeched federal officials for years to help build new tunnels, arguing that the failure of one could have a devastating economic impact far beyond the region. The Trump administration resisted their appeals. Riders have been plagued by delays and cancellations, with similar problems affecting railways along the Northeast Corridor.
Passenger railways across the country have struggled with a lack of federal funding, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers report card, creating a repair backlog of $45.2 billion. The Biden administration says its plan would replace buses and rail cars and expand transit and rail into new communities; it is unclear how the Hudson River tunnels might be involved.
The creaky Brent Spence Bridge
Crossing the Ohio River between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Ky.
President Barack Obama stood at the base of this bridge in 2011, describing legislation that would help improve it. In 2016, President Donald J. Trump also made assurances to replace the structure.
Yet the bridge has remained a source of frustration. Rusty and creaky, it has been listed as “functionally obsolete” in the federal bridge inventory since the 1990s, and it has a history of bottlenecks and crashes.
There is a $2.5 billion plan to fix the bridge and build a new one alongside it, but in Covington, Ky., some have expressed worries about the proposal. The mayor told The Cincinnati Enquirer that it was an “existential threat,” citing the size of the proposed bridge (some traffic would still cross over the old one, as well).
Mr. Biden’s plan vows to fix the nation’s 10 most economically significant bridges but has not specified which ones those are. “If there is any project eligible, this would be it,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, told local reporters at a news conference on Wednesday. “Hopefully somewhere in the bowels of this multitrillion bill, there’s a solution.”
Crumbling schools vulnerable to earthquakes
While children around the world have been going to school remotely since the coronavirus pandemic struck last year, many students in Puerto Rico had been out of class months earlier. That was because a school in southern Puerto Rico had crashed to pieces after a serious earthquake on Jan. 7.
The collapse brought attention to the more than 600 schools on the island that shared a “short column” architectural design, which makes them vulnerable to tremors. Teachers and parents were wary of reopening, and the schools with that design risk remain closed. Children who had gone to them are still learning remotely.
In addition, nearly 60 schools were closed after inspections following the earthquakes showed structural deficiencies. About 25 had “persistent” problems that predated the earthquake and its aftershocks, Puerto Rico’s education secretary told The New York Times last year.
Government officials recently acknowledged that in the year the schools were closed for the pandemic, no repairs had been made on any of the hundreds of vulnerable schools.
Hundreds of rural bridges, all closed
Across the country
Major bridges that carry tens of thousands of cars and eighteen-wheelers are not the only ones showing their age. So are smaller bridges in rural areas, which have much less traffic but are no less vital to a community’s ability to function. (In Mississippi alone, officials list 355 bridges that have been closed because of their age or dilapidation.)
Under the president’s infrastructure plan, 10,000 of these bridges would be fixed.
Of the nation’s bridges, 71 percent are rural. They make up 79 percent of the bridges rated as poor or structurally unsound, according to Trip, a transportation research nonprofit group.
Advocates for rural communities say the problems with bridges are indicative of a wider lack of connectivity — by roadways and through broadband internet. (The president’s plan also says it will deliver access to reliable high-speed internet to the 35 percent of residents of rural communities without it.)
Rural roads and bridges have a $211 billion backlog in improvements. Some of these projects, such as adding guardrails and widening lanes, could make it safer to drive on rural, noninterstate roads, which account for a disproportionately high number of the country’s traffic deaths.
Water crisis in Mississippi
Many vulnerabilities in infrastructure were exposed when a powerful winter storm swept through Texas and into the Southeast in February. One of them was the water system in Jackson, Miss., the state capital, where residents went weeks with a boil notice in place.
The water crisis inflamed enduring tensions in Jackson, ones that grip many communities where white residents have fled and tax bases have evaporated. The city has old and broken pipes. It does not have the funding to repair them. City officials estimated that modernizing Jackson’s water infrastructure could cost $2 billion.
The storm also caused power failures for millions of people across Texas, which has prompted lawmakers there to weigh an overhaul of the state’s electric infrastructure. At least 111 people died as a result of the storm, according to state officials, and it also caused widespread property damage and left some residents to face huge electric bills.
Under Mr. Biden’s plan, lead pipes and service lines would be eliminated, and more transmission lines for electricity would be installed.
Dams increasingly battered by climate change
Michigan and many other states
When Michigan state officials investigated what had led to the collapse of the Edenville and Sanford dams last year, which caused thousands to evacuate and inundated hundreds of homes and businesses, the conclusions were stark: A historic flooding event had caught up with years of underfunding and neglect.
The country has roughly 91,000 dams, a majority of which are more than 50 years old, and many are an exceptional rainfall away from potential disaster. As dams have aged, the weather has grown more severe, rendering old building standards outdated and creating conditions that few considered when many of the dams were built.
Residential development has also steadily spread into once rural areas that lie downstream from the weakening infrastructure. According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, about 15,600 dams in the country would most likely cause death and extensive property damage if they failed. Of those, more than 2,330 are considered deficient, the group said.
While the Biden plan mentions “dam safety,” it gives no details.
Levees that can no longer consistently hold
Across the country
The country has tens of thousands of miles of levees, which safeguard millions of people and trillions of dollars’ worth of property.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers operates a small fraction of the nation’s levees, while the rest are maintained by a patchwork of levee districts, local governments and private owners.
But floodwaters care little about who is in charge of maintenance, as the catastrophic 2019 floods in the Midwest showed. When record-breaking rains fell, levees were breached or overtopped across the region, drenching farmland, inundating homes and causing billions of dollars in damage.
The rainfall is not likely to let up soon, given new weather patterns driven by climate change. And some of the officials whose towns and cities were most affected by the 2019 floods are adamant: Simply refurbishing levees is not going to work anymore.
“Levees aren’t going to do it,” said Colin Wellenkamp, the executive director of Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative, an association of 100 mayors along the Mississippi River. His group presented a plan to the White House last month detailing a “systemic solution” to flooding. It includes replacing wetlands, reconnecting backwaters to the main river and opening up areas for natural flooding.
A plan that simply replaces infrastructure, rather than rethinking what it encompasses, will be ineffective and ultimately unaffordable, Mr. Wellenkamp said. He is not sure whether his group’s proposals have been folded into the Biden plan. But he sees little choice.
“This is a losing game unless we incorporate other, larger solutions,” he said.
Campbell Robertson and Frances Robles contributed reporting.