|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Sayano-Shushenskaya and similar dams built by the Soviet Union’s command economy provided copious, cheap hydropower, and many businesses benefited. Rusal, the world’s largest aluminum company with many smelters in Siberia, took advantage of bountiful supply and cheap prices as it ramped up operations over the last decade.
Rusal consumed about 70 percent of the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam’s output. Rusal’s owner, the oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska, once claimed that the Russian aluminum industry would outgrow America’s because cheap Siberian electricity provided an unbeatable advantage.
In fact, all of Russia’s economy grew on roads, pipelines, electrical transmission towers and other infrastructure built by the Soviets, but idled during the deep post-Soviet recession. This helped facilitate rapid economic growth.
But metal fatigues and snaps, gear teeth chip, grind and stick, oil pipes burst and leak, roads and bridges crack and buckle, and agricultural machinery fails during harvest.
A dearth of capital investment from the late 1980s until around 2005 left Russia with badly decrepit infrastructure. The nadir was probably in 2004, when the state statistics agency calculated that Russian capital equipment was, on average, 21.5 years old — compared with about 10 years in most Western economies, said Yaroslav D. Lissovolik, the chief economist at Deutsche Bank in Moscow.
“To re-equip Russia’s industrial base will take decades, not just two or three years,” Mr. Lissovolik said. “This is a long-term challenge.”
It has been a long-term challenge for a while. Long anticipated, the breakdown of Soviet infrastructure began in earnest this decade.
More than one in four of America's nearly 600,000 bridges need significant repairs or are burdened with more traffic than they were designed to carry, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
A third of the country's major roadways are in substandard condition -- a significant factor in a third of the more than 43,000 traffic fatalities each year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Traffic jams waste 4 billion hours of commuters' time and nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline a year, the Texas Transportation Institute calculates.
Dams, too, are at risk. The number of dams that could fail has grown 134% since 1999 to 3,346, and more than 1,300 of those are "high-hazard," meaning their collapse would threaten lives, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) found. More than a third of dam failures or near failures since 1874 have happened in the last decade.
Underground, aging and inadequate sewer systems spill an estimated 1.26 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every year, resulting in an estimated $50.6 billion in cleanup costs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Much of America is held together by Scotch tape, bailing wire and prayers," said Donald F. Kettl, director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.
Fixing these problems and others threatening the nation's critical infrastructure would cost $1.6 trillion -- more than half of the annual federal budget, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates. And that doesn't include what it will cost for new capacity to serve a growing population.
Recognizing the importance of structures so integral to U.S. commerce and Americans' well-being and safety, local, state and federal governments already are budgeting nearly two-thirds of the $1.6 trillion needed for infrastructure work. The problem is they raid many of those funds for other purposes, ASCE says.
Coming up with new money to fill the funding gap has become a political nightmare, with politicians and the public trying to avoid anything that looks like a higher tax.
"We have convinced ourselves that infrastructure is free, that someone else should be paying or that we have paid our share," said Mike Pagano, an urban planning expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago.