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Friday, August 21, 2009

This is America's future
Posted by Jill | 5:46 AM
There's a certain smugness about this article in today's New York Times about how Monday's breach of the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam in Siberia is indicative of a larger general failure of Soviet-era infrastructure. The implication is that this kind of thing simply couldn't happen here because of good old American capitalism and private ownership. Under the surface of its ostensible subject, there's standard conservative boilerplate over evils of government-run anything:
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.

Think now about the power plants near where you live. Or the dams. Or the roads on which you drive. I know that here in New Jersey, the point on Route 46 West near where it merges with Route 3 was until recently only drivable at about 45mph because of the scattershot potholes that pocked this section of the roads. I've driven on bridges where the pavement was so shot that you could see the webbing underneath.

Who can forget this:

That's the 2007 collapse of Minnesota's I-35W Bridge in 2007. Warnings of the bridge's structural deficiency had been made since 1990. And that's just one example of our own crumbling infrastructure right here in the US as tax cuts and unnecessary wars have taken priority over maintenance:
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.

Cash-strapped local governments are resorting to things like selling naming rights to subway stations to raise cash -- but naming rights don't actually sell these infrastructures to the companies that purchase these rights. How many corporations, focuses on maximizing profits, are going to want to buy roads and bridges and other necessary parts of the American economy unless they can make a sizable profit from them?

I think about the outcry every time the tolls go up on the roads around here. Imagine paying, say, $5.00 at every tollbooth on the Toyota Garden State Parkway, or $20.00 each way to cross the Washington Mutual Bridge in upper Manhattan or the Lincoln Federal Savings Tunnel in midtown. Does anyone actually think that corporations are going to maintain our infrastructure any better than governments do? Take a look at the IT infrastructure of any corporation and at how they view the employees who maintain it. Do you know any network administrator whose employer doesn't think of him or her as just a cost center with no revenue benefit to the company? If you work for a company with an outsourced help desk, sent to another country to minimize costs, when was the last time you actually had a problem solved?

Some things are just not profitable and the only way to make them profitable is to render them off-limits to a vast majority of the population. The problem with infrastructure is not that government can't handle it. The part of Route 46 I mentioned earlier has now been paved and the merge has actually been improved to provide more road length for traffic combining from two center lanes to one. The problem is, as quoted above, that Americans think that roads and schools and bridges and dams and railroad tracks are "free" the way they think the drinks and meals at an all-inclusive resort are "free", not realizing that the cost of these things is contained in the price they pay for the room.

Too many people think that taxes = welfare. Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" (who turned out to be a wealthy woman embezzling the government) is still very real in the public imagination. Ronald Reagan convinced Americans that taxes only pay for stipends to the undeserving, and that infrastructure is some magic thing built by pixies and is magically self-healing.

Look at the photos of the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam if you like. But they are less an indictment of the former Soviet system than they are a glimpse of America's future if we don't get our heads out of our asses soon.

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Blogger Bob said...
Krugman hammered again & again that the stimulus was too small, we needed to plan beyond "shovel ready" projects to long term infrastructure, & we were missing a unique opportunity.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Before they got all loopy about the dam break in Siberia, they might have checked Wikipedia for "Teton Dam."

"Total damage estimates have ranged up to $2 billion."