Free Term Paper on Aging Infrastructure

Aging InfrastructureOutline

I. Introduction

II. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Critical Infrastructure Sectors

III. Scope of the Problem

IV. Potential Solutions

V. Conclusion



In the last decade, the effect of aging infrastructure has become increasingly apparent within the United States. In 2003, the power grid serving the Northeast, much of the Midwest, and parts of Canada failed, leaving an estimated 50 million people without power. In 2005 the levees protecting New Orleans from flooding failed during Hurricane Katrina, and Lake Pontchartrain spilled in to the streets in one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. In 2007, the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, a transportation lifeline for the growing Twin Cities population, collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145. The degradation of the bridge was attributed to heavy use and age. As author Sydney Liles notes, “These are the infrastructure failures that make headlines. There are numerous other examples seen daily that never make the news because they do not appear to be that serious” (2009). This article analyzes infrastructure in the United States, provides a historical background on the current challenges the nation faces, and highlights several solutions identified by various stakeholders.

The term infrastructure, as defined by the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English (2008), is the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. Prior to the events of September 11, 2001, this term primarily referred to the U.S. public works system, which included systems such as roadways, bridges, water and sewer systems, airports, seaports, and public buildings. These earlier references often were put in a context of the concern for their “deteriorating, obsolete, and insufficient capacity” (Vaughan and Pollard 1984). Following the tragic events of the Oklahoma City bombing (1995) and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, more attention was paid to critical infrastructure. Specifically, critical infrastructure refers to physical and virtual assets and systems that are so vital to the country that their destruction and/or incapacitation would cause debilitating effects in terms of the nation’s security, economy, public health, public safety, or any combination thereof (Collins and Baggett 2009).

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Critical Infrastructure Sectors

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has identified 18 separate U.S. critical infrastructure sectors: Agriculture and Food, Banking and Finance, Chemical, Commercial Facilities, Communications, Critical Manufacturing, Dams, Defense Industrial Base, Emergency Services, Energy, Government Facilities, Healthcare and Public Health, Information Technology, National Monuments and Icons, Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste, Postal and Shipping, Transportation Systems, Water.

These sectors include the Agriculture and Food Sector, which “comprises more than 2 million farms, approximately 900,000 firms, and 1.1 million facilities.” This sector, like many of the others, is predominantly owned privately. It accounts for roughly one-fifth of the nation’s economic activity (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2007). The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) estimates that one person in eight works in some part of the agriculture/food sector. Cattle and dairy farmers alone earn about $50 billion a year in meat and milk sales. Domestically, about 10 percent of the U.S. annual gross domestic product (GDP) is related to agriculture and food production. Even without agroterrorism, livestock disease costs the U.S. economy about $17.5 billion and crop diseases account for about $30 billion (eXtension 2010).

The Banking and Finance Sector accounts for more than 8 percent of the U.S. annual GDP. This complex and diverse sector ranges from large institutions with assets greater than $1 trillion to the smallest community banks and credit unions. With more than 17,000 depository institutions, 15,000 providers of various investment products, more than 8,500 providers of risk-transfer products, and many thousands of credit and financing organizations, the financial services sector is both large in assets and in the number of individual businesses (National Association of Insurance Commissioners 2005).

The Chemical Sector is an integral component of the U.S. economy, employing nearly 1 million people and earning revenues of more than $637 billion per year. This sector can be divided into five main segments, based on the end product produced: (1) basic chemicals, (2) specialty chemicals, (3) agricultural chemicals, (4) pharmaceuticals, and (5) consumer products. Each of these segments has distinct characteristics, growth dynamics, markets, new developments, and issues. The majority of Chemical Sector facilities are privately owned, requiring DHS to work closely with the private sector and its industry associations to identify and prioritize assets, assess risks, develop and implement protective programs, and measure program effectiveness (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Commercial Facilities Sector is unique because most of the entities in this sector are considered open to the public; in other words, the general public can gain access to these facilities without restrictions. The majority of the facilities in this sector are privately owned and operated and include a variety of venues and establishment within the following eight subsectors: Public Assembly, Sports Leagues, Gaming, Lodging, Outdoor Events, Entertainment and Media, Real Estate, and Retail (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Communications Sector’s security strategy is to ensure the nation’s communications networks and systems are secure, resilient, and rapidly restored after an incident. The infrastructure includes wire-line, wireless, satellite, cable, and broadcasting and provides the transport networks that support the Internet and other key information systems. Over the past 20 years, the sector has evolved from a predominantly closed and secure wire-line telecommunications network focused on providing equipment and voice services into a diverse, open, highly competitive, and interconnected industry with wireless, satellite, and cable service companies providing many of those same services (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Critical Manufacturing Sector contains those organizations that process iron ore and manufacture steel. It also includes any facility that is involved in smelting, refining, rolling, and extruding nonferrous metals and alloys of nonferrous metals. This sector also includes Engine, Turbine, and Power Transmission Equipment Manufacturing; Electrical Equipment Manufacturing; Vehicle Manufacturing; Aviation and Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing; and Railroad Rolling Stock Manufacturing (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Dams Sector includes the vast collection of U.S. dams, totaling approximately 82,640, many of which are privately owned and only about a tenth of which (11 percent) fall under federal regulations. Ten percent of American cropland is irrigated by water stored behind these dams, which have an average age of about 51 years. With the United States second only to Canada in the production of hydropower, U.S. dams produce more than 103,800 megawatts of renewable electricity and meet up to 12 per cent of the nation’s power needs (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Defense Industrial Base (DIB) Sector includes the Department of Defense (DoD), government, and the private sector worldwide industrial complex, with the capabilities of performing research and development, design, production, delivery, and maintenance of military weapons systems, subsystems, components, or parts to meet military requirements. The DIB Sector includes tens of thousands of companies and their subcontractors who perform under contract to DoD (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Emergency Services Sector (ESS) is a system of response and recovery elements that forms the nation’s first line of defense and prevention and reduction of consequences from any terrorist attack. The ESS includes the following first-responder disciplines: emergency management, emergency medical services, firefighting, hazardous materials management, law enforcement, bomb prevention and detection, tactical operations/special weapons and tactics, and search and rescue (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Energy Sector includes nuclear power, oil, coal, natural gas, hydroelectric and alternative sources such as wind. The United States relies on each of these fuel sources to meet the daily demand for energy. Each of these sectors is made up of a series of systems that rely on other energy infrastructure systems to move the energy source to areas as needed. The electricity segment, for example, contains more than 5,300 power plants with approximately 1,075 gigawatts of installed generating capacity. There are 133 operable petroleum refineries that include more than 100,000 miles of product pipeline. Last, there are more than 448,000 gas production and condensate wells and 20,000 miles of gathering pipeline in the country. There are more than 550 operable gas processing plants and approximately 300,000 miles of interstate and intrastate pipeline for the transmission of natural gas (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Government Facilities Sector includes a wide variety of buildings owned or leased by federal, state, territorial, local, or tribal governments; they are located both domestically and overseas. Many government facilities are open to the public for business activities, commercial transactions, or recreational activities. Others not open to the public contain highly sensitive information, materials, processes, and equipment. This includes general-use office buildings and special-use military installations, embassies, courthouses, national laboratories, and structures that may house critical equipment and systems, networks, and functions (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Healthcare and Public Health (HPH) Sector constitutes approximately 15 percent of the GDP, with roughly 85 percent of the sector’s assets privately owned and operated (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010). Greater emphasis is placed upon the HPH Sector than any one individual hospital or medical facility because of the large number of sector assets, particularly hospitals and clinics. Protecting and preventing damage to any one asset is less vital than the ability to continue to deliver care.

The Information Technology (IT) Sector supports U.S. economic activity and other areas. Many critical infrastructure and key resources (CIKR) sectors rely on the IT Sector for products and services, including the reliable operation of networks and systems, and the movement and storage of critical data. The IT Sector accounts for about 7 percent of the U.S. GDP. On a daily basis, more than $3 trillion worth of economic activity (e.g., securities sales settlements, check clearances, and interbank transfers) passes over secure federal financial networks (Federal Reserve Board 2010).

The National Monuments and Icons (NMI) Sector encompasses assets that are listed in either the National Register of Historic Places or the List of National Historic Landmarks. NMI sector assets share three common characteristics:

  • They are a monument, physical structure, or object.
  • They are recognized both nationally and internationally as representing the nation’s heritage, traditions, and/or values or are recognized for their national, cultural, religious, historical, or political significance.
  • They serve the primary purpose of memorializing or representing significant aspects of the nation’s heritage, traditions, or values and as points of interest for visitors and educational activities.

They generally do not have a purpose or function (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2008).

The Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste Sector “accounts for approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electrical use, provided by 104 commercial nuclear reactors licensed to operate in the United States. The Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste (Nuclear) Sector includes: nuclear power plants; non-power nuclear reactors used for research, testing, and training; nuclear materials used in medical, industrial, and academic settings; nuclear fuel fabrication facilities; decommissioning reactors; and the transportation, storage, and disposal of nuclear material and waste” (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Postal and Shipping Sector processes over 500 million parcels and letters each day. It also maintains a large, geographically dispersed base of assets, systems, and personnel throughout the United States, including approximately 1 million people; 34,000 public and private operating facilities; 300,000 land vehicles; and more than 500 cargo aircraft. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) receives, processes, transports, and distributes more than 170 billion pieces of mail domestically each year. Currently, there are approximately 1,500 postal inspectors stationed throughout the United States who enforce more than 200 federal laws covering investigations of crimes connected with the U.S. mail and the postal system (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Transportation Systems Sector includes aviation, highways, maritime transportation, mass transit, pipeline systems, and rails. Each of these subsectors has unique infrastructural systems and issues:

  1. Aviation includes aircraft, air traffic control systems, and approximately 450 commercial airports and 19,000 additional airfields. This mode includes civil and joint-use military airports, heliports, short takeoff and landing ports, and seaplane bases.
  2. The Highway Subsector encompasses more than 4 million miles of roadways and supporting infrastructure. Vehicles include automobiles, buses, motorcycles, and all types of trucks.
  3. The Maritime Transportation System consists of about 95,000 miles of coastline, 361 ports, over 10,000 miles of navigable waterways, 3.4 million square miles of Exclusive Economic Zone to secure, and intermodal landside connections, which allow the various modes of transportation to move people and goods to, from, and on the water.
  4. Mass Transit includes multiple-occupancy vehicles, such as transit buses, trolleybuses, vanpools, ferryboats, monorails, heavy (subway) and light rail, automated guideway transit, inclined planes, and cable cars designed to transport customers on local and regional routes.
  5. Pipeline Systems include vast networks of pipeline that traverse hundreds of thousands of miles throughout the country, carrying nearly all of the nation’s natural gas and about 65 percent of hazardous liquids, as well as various chemicals.
  6. The Rail Subsector consists of hundreds of railroads, more than 143,000 routemiles of track, more than 1.3 million freight cars, and roughly 20,000 locomotives (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

The Water Sector includes both drinking water and wastewater utilities. There are approximately 160,000 public drinking water systems and more than 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment systems in the United States. Approximately 84 percent of the U.S. population receives their potable water from these drinking water systems, and more than 75 percent of the U.S. population has its sanitary sewerage treated by these wastewater systems (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

Each of the 18 sectors has a direct impact on personal and economic health of the United States, and events throughout the last decade have pointed toward the paramount need to make improvements in the country’s infrastructure system. The system, of which 85 percent is owned by the private sector, is vast, expansive, and oftentimes difficult for most citizens to grasp. To complicate matters, most of these systems are fast approaching the age of 50 years or older.

When these infrastructures were developed, they were designed based upon the population at the time and the available technological resources. For example, our nation’s capital has a 150-year-old sewer system; to put this into perspective, 100 years ago there were no automobiles, no airports, trucks, computers, or paved roads. Unfortunately, time and growth have taken their toll on much of the U.S. Critical Infrastructure System. The roads, public transit, and aviation systems continue to worsen, and the U.S water and sewage systems are in their worst condition in nearly 100 years.

Scope of the Problem

The most commonly referred to source on the state of U.S. critical infrastructure is the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The report provides grades on 15 categories of infrastructure within the United States. The results from both the 2005 and 2009 reports indicate that the country’s infrastructure rates a cumulative grade of D. Ranking among the lowest categories were drinking water, inland waterways, levees, roads, and wastewater. Only one category, energy, improved between 2005 and 2009, going from a D to a D+. In assigning grades, the ASCE council charged with the task considers criteria such as capacity, condition, operations and maintenance, current and future funding, public safety, and resilience. As part of the assessment, the ASCE provides a financial estimate to bring the condition of the nation’s infrastructure up to good condition. In 2005 this figure was estimated at $1.6 trillion, while the estimate in 2009 had risen to approximately $2.2 trillion (American Society of Civil Engineers 2009). The following examples, based on the ASCE Report Card Study, represent a snapshot of the extent to which the U.S. infrastructure is aging at alarming rates.

Within the water and environment area, the number of dams determined to be unsafe or deficient has risen from 3,500 in 2005 to 4,095 in 2007. Of that number, high-hazard-potential dams classified as deficient rose from 1,367 in 2005 to 1,819 in 2007. The rate of dam repairs is not keeping pace with the increase in the number of high-hazard dams needing rehabilitation. The gap between dams needing repair and those actually repaired is growing significantly. For example, the number of high-hazard deficient dams increased from 488 in 2001 to 1,826 in 2007. Additionally, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials found that the number of dams in the United States that could fail has grown 134 percent since 1999, to 3,346, and that more than 1,300 of those are considered “high-hazard”—meaning that their collapse would threaten lives (2007).

Within the transportation area, rail is an important component of the nation’s transportation network (due to its efficiency and reduced energy consumption), supporting the economy through both commerce and tourism. Approximately 42 percent of all intercity freight in the United States travels via rail, including 70 percent of domestically manufactured automobiles and 70 percent of coal delivered to power plants (Government Accountability Office 2006) As of 2006, railroads owned and operated 140,249 miles of track (Weatherford, Willis, and Ortiz 2007). However, most traffic travels on approximately one-third of the total network, which totals 52,340 miles.

The Northeast Corridor represents a major infrastructure challenge for Amtrak (a leading commercial rail company) and part of the difficulty with upgrading the infrastructure is the fact that the existing system was installed in the 1930s. Failure of these critical systems could bring the entire line to a halt, which would affect not only Amtrak but also the eight commuter railroads that share the Northeast Corridor. In short, owing to a lack of adequate investment, limited redundancy, intermodal constraints, and energy system interdependencies, the rail system is not resilient.

The transportation area also includes our nation’s bridges, which are approximately 43 years old on average and, when built, were estimated to last approximately 50 years. There are approximately 600,000 bridges currently being used in the United States. Of those, nearly 15 percent are considered categorized as functionally obsolete and 12 percent designated as structurally deficient. This accounts for about one in four rural bridges classified as deficient and one in three urban bridges as deficient (U.S. Department of Transportation 2010).

Additionally, a 2008 publication by the Pew Research Center compiled several alarming statistics regarding the current challenges with the U.S. Transportation Infrastructure. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 25 percent of America’s nearly 600,000 bridges need significant repairs or are burdened with more traffic than they were designed to carry. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that approximately a third of the nation’s major roadways are in substandard condition—a significant factor in a third of the more than 43,000 traffic fatalities in the United States each year. Several factors contribute to the challenges the country faces regarding infrastructure, as noted above. First, by 2007, the U.S. population grew to 303 million, up from 130 million 50 years earlier. Over the next 50 years, the population is expected to grow to 435 million. This represents a serious issue, as infrastructure built decades ago was never designed to handle the frequency of use represented by such a substantial increase in population. For example, in 2007 our highways carried 246 million vehicles, as compared with 65 million vehicles in 1955. This number is expected to reach nearly 400 million by 2055 (Jackson 2009).

The 2007 and 2008 Infrastructure reports detailed not only the dilapidated condition of U.S. infrastructure compared to that in European and Asian nations but also how an insular form of local planning and the lack of a cohesive national policy result in “congenital congestion and diminishing capacity” (American Society of Civil Engineers 2009). Transportation bottlenecks—road, freight, and airport—worsen while, at the same time, water supplies in many regions diminish and the power grid is put under more and more strain. (Ernst and Young 2009).

Potential Solutions

In an effort to remedy the challenges noted above, many stakeholders have proposed solutions to upgrade the status of the nation’s infrastructure over the next several years. Commonalities among these solutions include a greater reliance on private sector funding/capital, encouraging elected officials to make infrastructure improvement a top priority, and the development of a national plan or strategy. With regard to a national plan, many present the 1956 Highway Act, developed by President Dwight Eisenhower, as a model for a nationwide critical infrastructure improvement plan. The 13-year, $27.5-billion project resulted in the development of the National Highway System. Eisenhower realized that the availability of skilled labor, the need for highways, and a demand for consumer goods could make the National Highway System a reality (Turnley 2004).

Infrastructure 2009: Pivot Point, produced by Urban Land Institute and Ernst and Young, recommends a four-pronged approach for revamping infrastructure in the United States. First, the setting of national policy (a national infrastructure plan) is encouraged to take into account current and future infrastructure needs as well as increasing population projections. Next, stakeholders are encouraged to plan holistically to reduce congestion, lessen the carbon footprint, rely less on foreign oil, and ensure adequate water supplies. After this strategy is put into place, the authors suggest a careful analysis of the government framework to ensure that the actions are executed and managed. Last, the authors realize that infrastructure improvements, no matter how effective the strategy, will require funding. It is suggested that private capital be attracted and a stronger effort made to advance public/private partnerships. Other tax-restructuring plans and technology implementation advancements are also discussed as an option for revenue generation (American Society of Civil Engineers 2009).

Additionally, the American Society of Civil Engineers report mentioned earlier in this article provides five key solutions for maintaining and improving the nation’s infrastructure. First, the authors note that an increase in federal leadership in the area of infrastructure is essential. These leaders must develop a strong national vision to be shared by all levels of government and the private sector. Next, greater efforts toward the promotion of resiliency and sustainability must be undertaken. The nation’s infrastructure must be designed to withstand and protect, while using sustainable materials and practices. As noted in the Pivot Point article, well-conceived plans and strategies must be developed to “complement our broad national goals of economic growth and leadership, resource conservation, energy independence, and environmental stewardship” (American Society of Civil Engineers 2009, 12). Before significant investment is made in infrastructure development, a detailed cost analysis should be conducted to ensure all costs are anticipated during the lifecycle of the specific infrastructure. Last, the authors contend that infrastructure improvement will be successful only if investments are increased and improved from all stakeholders. These stakeholders include all levels of government, private sector owners, and users (American Society of Civil Engineers 2009).

Providing a homeland security perspective, former U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff outlines a three-step process that combines both the protection and maintenance of infrastructure. First, he contends that a risk-based approach (similar to the model used to counter terrorist threats) should be implemented to address the need for both the maintenance and protection of infrastructure. Next, he suggests that federal agencies should examine the top 500 to 1,000 high-consequence and high-risk assets to determine their vulnerability. After the vulnerability assessment, he notes that a strategy for maintenance and protection can be developed that effectively estimates the cost of long-term maintenance on the existing infrastructure. Last, the strategy has to be funded, implemented and continued. Chertoff notes that he has observed many “worthy projects begin with a great deal of hoopla and public support, only to watch commitment wane once the television lights are off and the media moves on to the next issue” (Chertoff 2008, 13).


Aging and decaying infrastructure is not only an inconvenience to citizens of the United States; more importantly, it creates public safety issues that are accompanied by potentially devastating economic consequences. In addressing the state of infrastructure in the United States, this article has provided an overview of critical infrastructure sectors, the scope of the existing infrastructure challenges, as well as potential solutions. As awareness of the growing infrastructure problem increases, with events such as growing traffic congestion, airport delays, inadequate school facilities, and rolling blackouts/brownouts, it is hoped that the priority of infrastructure improvements will be increased in federal, state, and local jurisdictions. Despite the varying estimates of financial obligations that loom over the country, the fact remains that infrastructure must be improved with an eye toward population growth, increased infrastructure usage, and the modernization of development strategies, materials, and technologies.


Pamela A. Collins and Ryan K. Baggett



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