USA’s creaking infrastructure holds back economy

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Ohio River's locks are crumbling. Blame LeBron

Our crumbling infrastructure will be a constant strain, and financial drain for our nation’s economy. Yet somehow we hear that the government needs to spend less money on infrastructure to HELP the economy. Does the idiocy ever end?

By Paul Davidson, USA TODAY

www.usatoday.com

Inland waterways quietly keep the nation’s economy flowing as they transport $180 billion of coal, steel, chemicals and other goods each year — a sixth of U.S. freight — across 38 states. Yet, an antiquated system of locks and dams threatens the timely delivery of those goods daily.

Locks and dams raise or lower barges from one water level to the next, but breakdowns are frequent. For example, the main chamber at a lock on the Ohio Rivernear Warsaw, Ky., is being fixed. Maneuvering 15-barge tows into a much smaller backup chamber has increased the average delay at the lock from 40 minutes to 20 hours, including waiting time.

The outage, which began last July and is expected to end in August, will cost American Electric Power and its customers $5.5 million as the utility ferries coal and other supplies along the river for itself and other businesses, says AEP senior manager Marty Hettel.

As the economy picks up, the nation’s creaking infrastructure will increasingly struggle to handle the load. That will make products more expensive as businesses pay more for shipping or maneuver around roadblocks, and it will cause the nation to lose exports to other countries — both of which are expected to hamper the recovery.

“The good news is, the economy is turning,” says Dan Murray, vice president of the American Transportation Research Institute. “The bad news is, we expect congestion to skyrocket.”

The ancient lock-and-dam system is perhaps the most egregious example of aging or congested transportation systems that are being outstripped by demand. Fourteen locks are expected to fail by 2020, costing the economy billions of dollars. Meanwhile, seaports can’t accommodate larger container ships, slowing exports and imports. Highways are too narrow. Bridges are overtaxed.

Effects ‘sneaking up’

The shortcomings were partly masked during the recession as fewer Americans worked and less freight was shipped, easing traffic on transportation corridors. But interviews with shippers and logistics companies show delays are starting to lengthen along with the moderately growing economy.

“I call this a stealth attack on our economy,” says Janet Kavinoky, executive director of transportation and infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not like an immediate crisis. It’s something that’s sneaking up on us.”

Freight bottlenecks and other congestion cost about $200 billion a year, or 1.6% of U.S. economic output, according to a report last year by Building America’s Future Educational Fund, a bipartisan coalition of elected officials. The chamber of commerce estimates such costs are as high as $1 trillion annually, or 7% of the economy.

Yet, there’s little prospect for more infrastructure investment as a divided Congress battles about how to cut the $1.3 trillion federal deficit, and state and local governments face their own budget shortfalls. Government investment in highways, bridges, water systems, schools and other projects has fallen each year since 2008. IHS Global Insightexpects such outlays to drop 4.4% this year and 3% in 2013.

The U.S. is spending about half of the $2.2 trillion that it should over a five-year period to repair and expand overburdened infrastructure, says Andrew Herrmann, president of theAmerican Society of Civil Engineers.

Inland waterways, for example, carry coal to power plants, iron ore to steel mills and grain to export terminals. But inadequate investment led to nearly 80,000 hours of lock outages in fiscal 2010, four times more than in fiscal 2000. Most of the nation’s 200 or so locks are past their 50-year design life.

A prime example is an 83-year-old lock on the Ohio River near Olmsted, Ill. Congress set aside $775 million to replace it and another nearby lock in 1988….

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