Campaigning for US Infrastructure: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Welcome to LaGuardia Airport! So sad to see you go.

Earlier this year Vice President Biden made some indecorous remarks (shocking!) when he said that LaGuardia Airport makes a person feel like they are "in some Third World country."

Since LaGuardia has long been recognized as one of the world's worst airports, Biden was correct - if a little culturally insensitive - in pointing out that many other less-developed nations have far better facilities. As the millions who pass through the dreaded LaGuardia (and, let's face it, the other New York City regional airports, too) know all too well, these are not places in which a person would choose to spend time.

If the airport infrastructure of the biggest US metro area is bad, then imagine the decrepit state of the rest of our national infrastructure. We often think of things like airports, highways and bridges, but what about infrastructure that we don't see that drives our society, like the electrical grid, food distribution networks or clean water and wastewater systems?

But we don't have to spend too much time wondering about these less visible systems, because the Report Card for America's Infrastructure shows that overall condition and performance is poor with a grade of D+. Maybe it's time for constituents, whose safety and livelihoods depend on this infrastructure, to make its upkeep more of a priority and consider it when voting and reaching out to representatives at all levels. From the US Chamber of Commerce to union coalitions to the International Monetary Fund, a diverse set of groups have lined up to say that investments in sustainable infrastructure are urgently needed for our safety and well-being, and that improvements can revitalize economy and improving our lives now and into the future.

Need more reasons to vote for infrastructure? Read on for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of our present day infrastructure.


Local food hub transit structures. Hunts Point is home to one of the world's largest food hubs, covering over 329 acres and supplying the New York City metropolitan area's 22 million people with produce, meat and poultry-related products, driving a $5 billion annual economy and providing over 20,000 direct jobs and livelihoods. Superstorm Sandy revealed that Hunts Point is located on a vulnerable floodplain, a problem that needed tending to in an era of sea-level rise. HUD's Rebuild by Design program awarded grants totaling $920 million (funded by the Rockefeller Foundation) to six projects in the New York area to rebuild with an eye towards climate resiliency. In "Hunts Point Lifelines" waterfront greenways, climate-adapted construction materials and techniques, a new maritime emergency supply pier (for when roads are inaccessible due to floods or blizzards) and "cleanways" will be used to dramatically reduce the air pollution and carbon footprint of the area. Which will mean a more secure food supply, cleaner air for area residents and workers and a more engaged community. And that's just what resilience-minded planning is all about! - Kristen Demaline

Energy storage. Due to wind and solar energies' intermittent nature (the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine) energy storage is being called the 'Holy Grail' for renewable energy infrastructure. Supply and demand for renewable energy doesn't always line up, so several companies are working on storage solutions to help make the electricity available when it's needed. Lithium-ion batteries are one possible solution, but other storage technologies like molten salt or freezing water could be alternatives. As with all energy infrastructure, cost will be the driver as to how long it will take to roll out storage capacity. - James Rose


Water main breaks. Early October saw another breakdown of one of Houston's aging water mains, but that's just one of a couple hundred breaks on an average summer day. Back in 2011, the city was in the grips of a severe heat wave and averaging an unbelievable 700 water main breaks a day thanks to a combination of corrosion and soil too dry to handle the expansion of the pipes. The cost to upgrade aging and failing water mains is not cheap, Texas alone has an estimated $26 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years and nationwide that number soars to $1 trillion. Despite the huge price tag, it's tough to imagine a smarter investment than the infrastructure that provides clean drinking water. - Peter Hanlon

Mapping methane. The US boom in fracking has produced a tremendous amount of natural gas, whose primary component is methane, a potent greenhouse gas. With all the concerns surrounding fracking and climate emissions, more scrutiny has been placed on natural gas pipelines that crisscross the United States. Enter a Google and Environmental Defense Fund partnership that has sent out Google Maps cars equipped to measure and map methane leaks in Boston, Indianapolis and Staten Island, New York. They found thousands of small leaks (that really add up) in the urban pipeline systems. Unsurprisingly, the older infrastructure of Boston and Staten Island was much less sound, with a leakage rate of about one per mile as compared to the Indianapolis leakage rate of one per 200 miles. One major takeaway was that targeting big leaks would reduce methane emissions faster. Boston has moved to fix those leaks and a greater awareness about the nation's aging natural gas infrastructure spurred the federal government to create a multi-sector roundtable called Save Energy, Stop Leaks, Start Work. (A catchier name might be good.) - Kai Olson-Sawyer


Fracking's road damage. As if US urban roadways weren't already in bad enough shape (a 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers report card gave them a "D") now that America's obnoxious new neighbor - fracking - has settled into the countryside, rural roads are not doing well either. Residents of shale gas country who aren't used to high volumes of industrial traffic are finding out, with sometimes disastrous results just how hard fracking is on local roadways, and it's often at taxpayers' expense. - Robin Madel

Wastewater treatment plants and problems with rising seas. When Superstorm Sandy struck the NYC metropolitan region, the 9-foot storm surge flooded the Bay Park sewage treatment plant on the south shore of Long Island. The facility's electrical system was knocked off line for almost two days, and as a result, approximately 2.2 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage flowed into the South Shore Estuary. The Nassau County government proposed "one of the most ambitious post-Sandy infrastructure and mitigation projects on the East Coast," to protect the plant from future flooding and tidal surges. Coastal communities have historically seen high tides as routine, but accelerated sea level rise is changing that. Higher seas will reach farther inland, creating longer lasting flood conditions that disrupt daily life for a growing number of people. If coastal communities want to stay dry between storms, they need to change how they think about and live with the tides. - Kyle Rabin


Image "arrivals & departures" by Phillip Kalantzis Cope on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.