By David Drake, Technical Director for AMERICAN
Infrastructure crises are nothing new. In the second half of the 19th century, an emergency referred to as “The Great Stink” caused a public outcry in London. For decades, inhabitants of the area had diverted their sewage into the Thames River to be carried away. As the population grew, the river became more and more polluted. The situation reached the breaking point in the summer of 1858 when the city was made virtually uninhabitable by the river’s overwhelming stench and an epidemic of cholera. In response, the government contracted with engineer Joseph William Bazalgette to design and construct a new sewer system. The final product took more than 10 years to complete and cost about $1.3 billion (in 2019 dollars). The choice to pursue this project turned out to be a good investment that positively impacted London for the next 150 years. Even today, the same sewer system continues to serve more than eight million people.
While we might not be facing something quite as dramatic as London did in 1858, the United States has more than its share of infrastructure issues. Roads and bridges tend to attract the most attention because they are visible. The electric grid is a fragile network of outdated transformers, switches and transmission lines. More than 15,000 dams nationwide have been identified as “high-hazard.” And, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $150 billion is needed to repair and upgrade thousands of miles of potable water and wastewater systems.
National Infrastructure Week began May 13. The theme this year is “America’s future will be shaped by the infrastructure choices we make today.” From public-private partnerships to increases in gas taxes, elected officials in Washington, D.C., are considering ways to fund public works projects that could take decades to complete. Like London’s investment in underground architecture, the right choices made in America today will determine our quality of life tomorrow.