The Great Recovery of America’s Infrastructure: Cancelled

Wondering what happens when you don’t maintain the Interstate Highway system? Wondering if we can get along without it? Minneapolis, 2007. (Wikipedia Photo)

Watch closely any group involved in dealing with a disaster — let’s say, a fire company battling a structure fire — and you may catch the moment when they share a glance that says, “You know what, we’re not going to win this one.” Their conduct changes almost imperceptibly from “balls to the wall, we can do this,” to “watch where you step, and back away from the walls, she’s gonna burn to the ground.”

Such a moment may well have come this week for the people who still believe — or have believed since Donald Trump was elected president — that we are going to experience a Great Recovery of this country’s rotting roads and decrepit bridges, which will in turn create millions of jobs, restore the middle class, eliminate poverty, homelessness and cancer, save the economy and make it 1958 in America once more. And Mexico is going to pay for it. (Actually, candidate Trump promised $50 billion for the purpose, double Hillary Clinton’s proposed spending. But neither of them explained where they were going to get the money.)

No one questions that this massive construction program is not only necessary but urgent. Our entire economy, all of it, travels on the backs of 18-wheelers, and if anything at all interferes with their tightly scheduled travel, we are all in the  soup, neck deep and right now.  The American Society of Civil Engineers, the people who would do this work if they were hired, has been warning us for years about the deterioration. The Interstate Highway system (900,000 miles) and all its bridges (600,000) and overpasses, came with an expiration date stamped on them, just like so many quarts of milk. Their life expectancy was 50 years when they were built — 60 years ago.

The civil engineers are very civil when they try to tell us why their hair is on fire: “by 2024, the U.S. will face an infrastructure funding gap of $1.4 trillion.” It’s not in their nature to draw pictures of empty stores, food riots, endless lines for gasoline, and various other civil insults, because they don’t want to trigger the general panic that the situation deserves. Instead, we will just agree that it’s a heckuva problem, Brownie.

And now there’s hope, right? Maybe the Child President will remember his concern about the roads (infrastructure is way too long a word, get outta here) long enough to try to do something about them. Maybe his excellent Cabinet can come up with a way to pay for fixing them (Rex Tillerson could just write a check, but that would probably be a conflict of interest).

But here’s the thing. In a few weeks, this massive project won’t even be possible, even if Canada pays for it in cash. Because the largest asphalt plant in the United States is shutting down for lack of business. According to Bloomberg, Axeon Specialty Products is converting to other uses a plant in New Jersey capable of producing 50,000 barrels of asphalt per day. U.S. consumption of asphalt has been hovering below 350,000 barrels a day since 2009.  To support a meaningful overhaul of the road system the county would need to manufacture at least an additional 200,000 barrels per day.

With Axeon’s New Jersey plant gone, there is no way that is going to happen. Even if Canada does pay for it.  The engineers are looking at each other funny — it may be time to back away from those walls before they fall on us.


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14 Responses to The Great Recovery of America’s Infrastructure: Cancelled

  1. acd says:

    Simple arithmetic. 540 U.S. billionaires taxed at $1 billion each equal $540 billion. That should be enough! Remember each billion each billionaire has was not earned by that billionaire working for 1 billion hours at $1 an hour, or working for any hourly wage for any number of hours, or by any of their labor. It was earned by the labor of people, some of whom use the highways and bridges to get to work, most of whom walk to work on dirt roads somewhere, anywhere.

  2. Mike Kay says:

    A review of the interstate highway system leads to an inescapable conclusion; it was never conceived with any future in mind other than the Big Rock Candy Mountain mythos.
    We are not alone in imagining an impossible future. China has built an entire economic empire based on similar fancy, and Japan has become the radioactive capital of the world through the same kind of “thought”.
    Clearly, it lies beyond those humans who lust to be at the controls, to have the slightest idea of what they are doing.
    Actually, using the model of stupid farm animals as humanity’s decision makers brings it all into clear focus, while removing the hope that something, anything constructive can be done.

    • SomeoneInAsia says:

      If you go back to the early 19th Century, China and Japan originally never wanted to participate in the entire industrial game. They were compelled to do so– by who, I shan’t bother to mention. And premodern China’s sociocultural modus operandi enabled her to last at least four millennia — rather a different scale from the mere two hundred years modern industrial society can last.

      • Mike Kay says:

        Well now THAT is a truly a fantastic dodge of responsibility. China, the country that swaggered onto the world stage with it’s demands for technology-which it got, and it’s unfettered access to every market, now is the poor innocent victim of big bad white boogeymen, and Japan, the country that decided it would teach the business world a lesson, really just wanted to be a shy retiring Trisha girl.
        Yeah, right.

        • Mike Kay says:

          Editor replaced geisha with Trisha, and I missed it. The word is GEISHA.

        • SomeoneInAsia says:

          Where did I mention… ‘big bad white bogeymen’? Talk about guilt by admission.

          And why is it a dodge of responsibility? Isn’t it true that, had it not been for those bogeymen, the two Asian countries would have just continued along their original historical/cultural trajectory?

          By the way, China’s industrialization went full throttle only in the 1970s. She really had no choice but to industrialize.

  3. Tom says:

    I think this is further evidence that “they know it’s all going to collapse in the next few years”
    and are not thinking “long term” on anything besides weapons of war. And even THERE, it isn’t going well, as per this example:

    Grounded: Nearly two-thirds of US Navy’s strike fighters can’t fly

    Congress’ inability to pass a budget is hurting the fleet, leaders say

    So there’s always money available to blow shit up and destroy lives, but infrastructure, like social programs, is going to have to be sacrificed.

    We’ve become a banana republic in my lifetime.

  4. Rob Rhodes says:

    Its seems that even the money can be found, or printed, the real resources cannot be had, and they certainly can’t be printed. Imagine how much paving base (gravel) would have to be extracted to soak up 200,000 barrels of asphalt daily!

  5. Steven Martin says:

    So what are some proposed solutions? Its too easy to keep harping on the obvious problems. Reprogramming $100 Billion from supporting illegal aliens is a good start. But let’s say a non politician appears, someone who has built projects with remote odds of success on difficult work sites. Someone who does not quit. Someone who has overcome opposition time and time again. Who has overcome corrupt unions, local shakedowns, incompetent local officials, toxic sites, the common naysayers, and other factors that seem insurmountable. With many projects and buildings completed on schedule and under budget. Clever enough to structure business as individual entities so that the failure of one venture does not undermine the entire company. And will forgo any salary to take on all these headaches. Yeah, I’m willing to take a chance on him. Let’s quit carping and whining and get digging.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Complaining about the color of the drapes in your stateroom is whining; pointing out that the ship is down 30 degrees at the bow and taking on water is not whining. Trump didn’t cause this problem, every politician who has held office for 50 years caused this problem. Trump deserves credit for even mentioning it, and he will get enormous credit if he solves it. The solution is as obvious as the problem: tax the American people — progressively, with the major burden falling on the super rich — enough to do the job. It ain’t gonna happen.

    • Denis Frith says:

      The real bottom line is that what is physically possible is determined by the availability of the eighty odd irreplaceable natural resources. This is an unsustainable process that no amount of money or skilled labor can possibly over come. It is a global problem but, as usual, the USA has led the way down in recent times.

  6. shastatodd says:

    this is just another example to the limits to growth on our finite planet. the ironic thing is that “intelligent” humans still think shuffling the deck chairs around can keep the ship floating.

    enjoy these remaining good days folks, because as we are starting to see, this story does not end well.

  7. Denis Frith says:

    Those smart people who embrace the dictum of ELAM (Earth’s Lodgers’ Activty Management)movement will be better able to cope with the inevitable powering down.

  8. gwb says:

    It’s not just roads and bridges, but other systems, too, like water mains:

    All our infrastructure was built with fossil fuels, and they’re almost gone.