US infrastructure spending and climate change are on a collision course

With $50 billion earmarked for road and bridge repair by the latest administration, is it a once in a generation opportunity? As politicians once again defer to scientific and academic expertise, Charlie Woodley highlights the scale of the shortfall, the political irony of the link to climate change and how avoiding tragedy is fraught with challenges.

Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard


Lest we forget


Human nature is as vulnerable as it is predictable. The public is quickly desensitized by mass media. It is true of famine, war, scandal, terrorism and now pandemic deaths. Yet the loss and pain endured from any death are amplified when it could reasonably have been prevented. The 2007 I-35W bridge collapse saw thirteen people killed, 145 more were injured, many of them seriously [1].

The scale of the problem


American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) 7th Annual Bridge Report [2] is a comprehensive analysis of the condition of bridges in the United States. The report is based on the April 2, 2020, National Bridge Inventory (NBI) data collected by the Federal Highway Administration.


Key points [3]

More than one third (37%) of U.S. bridges—nearly 231,000 spans—need repair work. More than 46,000 bridges are rated in poor condition and classified as “structurally deficient.” A total of 81,000 bridges should be replaced
While the number of structurally deficient (SD) bridges declined by 900 compared to 2018, it still would take more than 50 years to repair them all
Motorists drive [ac]cross these structurally deficient bridges 178 million times a day
Structurally deficient bridge, on average, are nearly 69 years old, compared to 44 years old for non-deficient bridges
One-third of Interstate highway bridges (18,177 spans) have identified repair needs

The financial reality


The $50 billion earmarked by the administration is for both road and bridge repairs. Yet the estimated cost of bridge work alone for the 231,000 spans requiring repairs is $164 billion.


Logistics is the lifeblood of an economy so it is important to reiterate that Biden's team proposed investment is just for year one. Furthermore, they recognise the disproportionate social impact of underinvestment in infrastructure and intend to address it.


The economic impact of inaction is immense. Alison Premo Black, PhD, ARTBA chief economist noted that traffic bottlenecks cost the trucking industry more than $60 billion per year in lost productivity and fuel [4].


The link with climate change


There is a negative feedback loop between poor infrastructure, additional mileage, fuel, emissions and increased physical stress on ageing assets. Irrespective of whether a reader accepts humans are the cause of climate change, the climate is changing.


As if things couldn't get worse, the rate of degradation of structurally critical expansion joints is accelerated by foreseeable increases in thermal stresses induced by climate change. See the 2019 study by Susan Palu and Hussam Mahmoud of Colorado State University [5].


They found that current temperatures aren’t extreme enough to cause a problem, but:

One in four bridges are at risk of a section failing in the next 21 years, rising to
28 per cent by 2060
49 per cent by 2080, and
Almost all are set to fail by 2100 [6]

Fig 4. SSSG bridges on Interstate and US highways and projected daily maximum temperature change from 2020 to 2100 under the higher forcing scenario RCP 8.5.

A human cost of political polarisation


That infrastructure investment is intrinsically linked to social and economic success is undeniable. Yet polarisation in the two-party system has resulted in infrastructure investment, by the people for the people, becoming a political football.


The clock is ticking, the stakes are rising and, with a razor-thin margin, Biden must walk the proverbial political tightrope [7]. The consequences could not be graver and at what point will politicians be held accountable?


If recent history tells us anything, unless the general population first understands the consequences of political inaction and holds politicians accountable at the ballot box, then America will continue to crumble.

About the author

Charlie Woodley, Managing Director, has provided analytical firepower to the claims and disputes sector for over 12 years. He combines established legal forensics with emerging technologies and provides solutions that unlock efficiency gains in claim preparation and everyday business operation. Charlie’s experience incorporates contracting, claim and expert advisory and expert witness practice. He has supported technical, quantum and delays teams and been instructed as data expert in international arbitration. Convinced of the potential of technology to disrupt dispute resolution, Charlie writes from a digital perspective incorporating his commercial experience and research in the fields of dispute causation and behavioural economics. cw@disputedata.io

About Dispute Data

Dispute Data is a specialist data wrangling consultancy servicing the global engineering and construction sector. They harness technology to find, collate, clean and unify messy and complex data sets for easy access and analysis. Spanning commercial operation, claims, dispute resolution and expert services they provide analytical firepower and information expertise when it is needed most. For further information please visit www.disputedata.io

References

  1. NPR "10 years after the bridge collapse is America still crumbling? https://www.npr.org/2017/08/01/540669701/10-years-after-bridge-collapse-america-is-still-crumbling?t=1611834763632

  2. ARTBA’s 7th Annual Bridge Report: http://artbabridgereport.org

  3. ARTBA’s 7th Annual Bridge Report, Economic Report https://artbabridgereport.org/reports/2020%20ARTBA%20Bridge%20Report.pdf

  4. Risk Management Monitor, "Thousands of U.S. Bridges Deemed Deficient" https://www.riskmanagementmonitor.com/tag/artba/

  5. Palu S, Mahmoud H (2019) Impact of climate change on the integrity of the superstructure of deteriorated U.S. bridges. PLoS ONE 14(10): e0223307. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223307

  6. New Scientist "Climate change may see one in four US steel bridges collapse by 2040" https://www.newscientist.com/article/2221040-climate-change-may-see-one-in-four-us-steel-bridges-collapse-by-2040/

  7. Politico. Biden’s narrow path to an infrastructure dream. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/19/biden-infrastructure-plan-460448

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