half of all schools were built over fifty years ago -- 9/09/16

Today's selection -- from Public Pensions and City Solvency Susan M. Wachter. Cities and states throughout the country have been neglecting and deferring infrastructure spending on such areas as schools, roads, and water systems for decades -- in no small part because of the rising cost of pension plans and public welfare programs:

"Cities throughout the United States have ... been deferring the maintenance, replacement, and new construction of vital infra­structure for many decades. The consequences of this deferral are becoming increasingly apparent. On July 29, 2014, a large water pipe ruptured on Sunset Boulevard near the University of California, Los Angeles. The resultant flooding caused millions of dollars of damage to cars and campus buildings and destroyed the hardwood floor in iconic Pauley Pavilion. While seemingly an isolated incident, for the past several years, work crews have been called upon to repair an average of four breaks a day in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's 6, 730-mile network of water mains. The DWP estimates that its porous system loses up to eight billion gallons of water a year, likely because about a fifth of these pipes were installed before 1931 (Poston and Stevens 2015). The DWP proposes to increase the rate at which it replaces aging pipes provided that they can raise the reve­nue to do so.

Sunset Boulevard water main break

Yet, Los Angeles is a relatively young city. Most of its growth oc­cured after World War II and, consequently, its water infrastructure is actually in better shape than that of much of the rest of the coun­try, with DWP officials estimating its water losses to be about half the national average (Poston and Stevens 2015). Many older cities have water pipes that date back to the Civil War. All told, there are about a quarter million water main breaks a year. In 2014, the American So­ciety of Civil Engineers assigned D grades to drinking water systems and waste water systems in the United States. Replacing only those pipes that are likely to fail will require over $1 trillion over the next twenty-five years (ASCE 2013).

Other infrastructure has fallen into similar levels of disrepair. In ASCE's 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, streets and urban roads, schools also received a D grade. Consistent with the D assigned by the ASCE, the Federal Highway Administration reports that potholes and rough pavement conditions are severe enough in over a quarter of our cities' roads and streets to be rated as poor, and in over another quarter to be rated as mediocre (TRIP 2013). The con­dition of mass transit systems is similar (ASCE 2013: 7).

Collapsed CA I-10 bridge

"As is the case for physical infrastructure in general, deferred main­tenance on roads and highways may save money in the short term but will likely have large, negative financial repercussions in the future. Responding to poor road conditions by merely leveling bumps and filling potholes does not prevent a failure of the roadbed, a much more expensive problem to correct. Despite this, the financial back­ing that states and cities receive from the Highway Trust Fund and other federal agencies has steadily declined, and current levels of spending on transportation infrastructure are not sufficient to pre­vent conditions from worsening further.

"Public school facilities, another major component of infrastructure that merited a D grade on the ASCE's 2013 Report Card, have also experienced a decline in expenditures on maintenance, repair, and new construction. About half of all schools were built over fifty years ago, during the enrollment surge associated with the baby boom, and, as such, are nearing the end of their useful life. However, invest­ment in new facilities has long lagged behind what is required to prevent continued and worsening deterioration. This investment, like many other types of investments listed above, also fell precipitously during the Great Recession. Overall, public nonresidential construction spending declined from about $307 billion in 2009 to $263 billion in 2013, or from about 2.1 percent of GNP to 1.5 percent."


Susan M. Wachter


Public Pensions and City Solvency (The City in the Twenty-First Century)


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2016 University of Pennsylvania Press


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