The Human Cost of Our Unrepaired Infrastructure

From coast to coast, the country’s once-envied collection of bridges, dams, pipelines and levees is crumbling. Studies show that a lack of investment in public infrastructure costs billions of dollars a year in lost productivity, but experts say the economic measures obscure the more dire threat to public safety. Every year, hundreds of deaths, illnesses and injuries can be attributed to the failure of our decaying infrastructure:

Roads
The Department of Transportation estimates that obsolete road designs and poor road conditions are a factor in about 14,000 highway deaths each year, and the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation put the medical cost of highway injuries from poor road conditions at $11.4 billion for 2013.

Railways
Research by the National Transportation Safety Board shows that since 2004, about 77 deaths and 1,400 injuries could have been prevented if railroads had installed a safety system known as Positive Train Control. That includes an Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia this year that killed eight people and injured hundreds more.

Water Systems
The Centers for Disease Control’s most recent annual survey shows that outbreaks of disease related to drinking water caused 431 cases of illness, 102 hospitalizations and 14 deaths, many linked to aging and crumbling water systems.

Dams
Nationwide, 73 dams have failed since 2010 according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. The average age of the failed dams was 62 years and most of the failures were caused by extreme weather. After recent heavy rains in South Carolina, 36 dams collapsed and 19 people died in the flooding. Some of those dams were over 100 years old with a known history of problems.

Bridges
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, about one in nine bridges nationally are considered “structurally deficient” — deemed safe for travel but in need of renovation or replacement. In 2007, the Interstate 35W bridge in Minnesota collapsed into the Mississippi river, killing 13 and injuring 145.

Much of America’s infrastructure was built many decades ago with the understanding that the structures would remain in place for no more than 50 years or so. But many structures have exceeded that age. Meanwhile, spending on infrastructure has remained flat for decades. According to data from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, governments have spent just 2.4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product on infrastructure since 1956. Transportation experts say that percentage should be higher because repair needs are rising.

“There is no question that there are safety impacts and loss of life because we didn’t take the time or spend the money to make infrastructure what it should be,” Anthony R. Foxx, the transportation secretary, said in an interview.

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