Coming to Grips With Our Crumbling Infrastructure

Jan. 3, 2015

With the age of more and more municipal plumbing systems passing the century mark, planners find themselves faced with the thorny issue of whether to replace, renovate, or come up with a Plan C, whatever that might be. No matter what the choice, the chances are that it involves excavation work of some sort as part of the process.

Two of Grading & Excavation Contractor‘s sister publications-Stormwater and Water Efficiency-are directly involved with the situation, and two others-Business Energy and Erosion Control-are connected to remediation activities, if only tangentially. (You can view and subscribe to all of our magazines, along with online training and education programs under the auspices of Forester University at All deal with the critical situation in which our nation finds itself as we work our way through the second decade of the twenty-first century, forced to face the painful fact that we can no longer ignore the inadequate state of much of our basic (mostly underground) infrastructure. Age, of course, accounts for a lot of the problem, but there are other-equally fundamental-issues as well.

Population growth over the last 100 years has pushed the demand placed on our systems beyond their design limits. In 1900, the US population was 76 million, only one-third of which (25 million) lived in an urban setting. We were for the most part an agrarian society.

As of the nation’s 2010 census, the US population stood at 310 million-a 340% increase over the past 100 years-80% of which (249 versus 59 million) is now urban. That’s an eight-fold increase in the demand for basic utility services, huge by any standards, but there’s more.

Over the past 100 years, urban per capita water consumption has tripled, rising from 60 gallons per day (gpd) to 180 gpd. This means that, at the very least, our urban water consumption has risen from 1.5 to 460 billion gpd over the period. I’d be the first to concede that all such figures are suspect, but I offer them not for accuracy’s sake, but to put into perspective what’s at stake over the next several decades.

In the past, I’ve gone with an estimated cost range of $15 and $30 trillion that will be needed between now and 2050 to deal with the entire range of infrastructure shortfalls-transportation and electrical transmission included-but that range is based on what it might take to restore things to an adequate level based on past demands. This brings into focus two antithetical situations: (1) tomorrow’s needs are almost surely bound to be greater than today’s, and (2) with all the competing needs for public funds, it’s highly unlikely those kinds of monies will be set aside for infrastructural repair or upgrade in anything approaching a proactive manner.

If past actions can be viewed as prologue, we will wait until failures pose such an undeniable threat to public health, safety, and commerce that we are forced to respond with other than finger-in-the-dike solutions. One of the biggest hurdles we will have to overcome is the institutionalization of systems vital to the conduct of our daily lives. One example is centralization, which made sense during the installation and initial build-out of our water, electric, and gas systems, and in some situations it may still offer some advantages. Yet, there are deeply rooted aspects of ownership, jurisdiction, and entitlement that compound the challenges associated with change. As our urban centers continue to mature, spread, erode, and give way to suburbanization, we have to ask ourselves and those who manage these institutions whether it makes sense to continue along traditional lines rather than seek new solutions.

These are challenges that the stewards of our vital municipal services, along with our elected officials, must face. In a more immediate way, however, it is we upon whom the burden of accomplishing the multitude of the tasks will fall. Because we were on the leading edge of so many infrastructural advances, we left heavy footprints in our wake that others have been able to leapfrog. It makes no difference that it was our industry that allowed this to happen; in consequence, many of what we once considered third-world nations have advanced to a position in which their more modern infrastructural base allows them to be more productive than we. This isn’t soothsaying; it’s happening before our eyes, and it’s time to do something about it.

For starters, we need to demand that our elected officials stop playing politics and become the leaders the situation demands. Then, it’s time for us to dedicate ourselves to developing the skills and fine-tuning the processes necessary to complete the monumental construction tasks that lie ahead. Where can you find information, discussions, and training for meeting these challenges? I can think of no better place to become involved than with the help of Grading & Excavation Contractor, its sister publications, and the Web-based training and education courses offered by Forester University.