Saturday, 3 February 2001

Aging Infrastructure in the US and Its Adverse Implication

Aging infrastructure is too risky when you think of old bridges and railways with high volumes of traffic each day. It can cost lives, money for repair, and maintenance.

In fact this is what happened in 1996 when an 86-year old Portal bridge malfunctioned. This bridge spans the Hackensack River and carries trains to Penn Station in New York. The bridge functions like the London Bridge.

It opens allowing river traffic to pass by but morning in November 23, 1996 a then 86-year old bridge rail fails to snap back in place. It caused the train to race off side swiping the train going the opposite direction, before plunging to the riverbank below at 108 kilometers per hour. Miraculously no one aboard the train was killed however 43 people were injured. The wake of this disaster has caused $3.6 million in recovery and clean-up.

Surprisingly today, the now 105 year-old bridge is still in operation. It is heavily trafficked today as it is in previous years. Despite agreements and lobbying of powerbrokers that yes, this bridge needs to replaced, yet something has yet to be done about it.

According to Drew Galloway, vice president for planning and development of Amtrak, the Portal Bridge is known as the "Achilles heel" of the Northeast corridor. Sadly, it is not only Portal but there are so many other weak spots in other busy rail corridors in America.

While the Portal Bridge is still reasonable structurally, its mechanical and electrical systems are at the end of their useful lives. The Portal Bridge is literally a ticking time-bomb.

To be fair, the Federal transportation have acknowledge the risky state it's in. There is a plan to replace it with a tall 2-track bridge that would allow barges and boats to pass under it with an estimated cost of $900 million. The money has yet to be line-up yet.

A transit blogger Sandy Johnston has some ideas on how can this be remedied without spending a lot of money. Because the regular traffic on the Hackensack river are tug boats that guides barges that are full of Bergen County sludge to the sewage treatment plant in Newark, why not look for an alternative way to transport the sludge and build a lower cheaper bridge instead?

Cost-wise this idea sounds great. However, it's not that simple.

Consider for example that a single 15-barge tow is equivalent to more than 200 rail cars or one thousand trucks. The swap from river traffic to road or rail will increase congestions on these routes.

Also, use of waterways is still the cheapest means of long-distance transport for cargo at 2 cents per ton per mile compared to 4 cents per ton per mile for rail and 18 cents per ton per mile for trucks. Needless to say, these increase in transport or freight costs will be likely passed on to consumers.

It is good to know that US transportation agency has made some evaluation of their aging infrastructure as the 105-year-old Portal Bridge illustrated. Conducting infrastructure management planning would help authorities in coming up with strategies that would maximize financial resources and cushion the cost impact for both government and citizens.

Until a clear civil infrastructure management plan has been drawn and implemented, aging infrastructure in the US do not only pose as "Achilles heels" of the infrastructure network but also remains as "Damocles sword". The aging infrastructure of America is a big infrastructure asset management challenge that the great nation should resolve as soon as possible.

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