Making Change: Aging Infrastructure Brings Economic Ramifications

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You probably don't have to think too hard to come up with the name of a street that makes you fear for the well-being of your car. You know the kind - cracks that rival the Grand Canyon, potholes that rattle your ribs when you pass over them. Those charming features have names. Ron Eckner, director of transportation planning at the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency can tick off several of them on a single city block in downtown Cleveland.

Ron Eckner: This is what it looks like - so it is fatigue cracking. Very severe fatigue cracking is called alligator or chicken wire.

That's when multiple cracks break up the pavement so it looks like... well... alligator skin. There are also longitudinal and latitudinal cracks and patches. When there are grooves in the pavement that cradle your tires just so - that's called rutting. And there's raveling which feels like a really rough road.

Ron Eckner: And what has happened here is the aggregate shows and the asphalt is gone. It's really hard to see when it's dry, but if you look carefully you can see the aggregate is kind of sticking up.

Eckner says he can't judge from just looking if the cause is skin deep, or comes from the base. Either way, he says, fixing them isn't cheap.

Ron Eckner: If it's really bad it's probably got a bad base. So, putting three inches of asphalt on a bad base won't last very long. One inch will last long enough for you to design a new roadway. But that gets to be real expensive.

The federal government usually has a hand in funding those road repairs. But that's not the case for much of the infrastructure that we don't see. Drinking water, hazardous waste, energy and sewer rely mostly on local user fees - fees that increase when maintenance and improvements are necessary.

Erwin Odeal: We're looking at around $1.2 billion in 30 years to have to invest in current infrastructure.

Erwin Odeal is Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

Erwin Odeal: We're also looking at another $1.2 billion that will have to be invested in the combined sewer overflow problem. The situation with the storm and sanitary in the same pipe and it overflows in a rain storm. So we really are looking at 30 years capital needs of some $3.2 billion plus the cost of running day to day operations of the business here.

The kicker with the sewer district is that the EPA mandates many of the improvements to the system, even though the federal government doesn't fund them. As a result, rates for the district's 500,000+ customers will go up an average of $5 a month in the next two years. Northeast Ohio isn't alone in coping with aging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation as a whole a D+ on infrastructure investments. ASCE executive director Pat Natale says aging infrastructure is a threat to our safety and our economy.

Pat Natale: We need a healthy infrastructure to support a healthy economy. Or to put it in other words, a crumbling infrastructure cannot support a healthy economy.

It would take at least $1.6 trillion to bring the nation's infrastructure up to top standards, Natale says. And he's concerned because it's an issue that doesn't seem to capture the public's imagination.

Pat Natale: What will it take? Will it take another blackout? Will it take a bridge failing? A dam failing? Or some other catastrophe to get people's attention? I'd hate to have it get to that.

There's another reason it's difficult to impress people with the importance of maintaining infrastructure.

Hunter Morrison: It's not a real sexy topic.

That's what Hunter Morrison says - he's director for the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University and the former planning director for the city of Cleveland.

Hunter Morrison: But it's what under-girds a lot our ability to live the lives we want to live and if we want to continue doing that we need to focus our attention and debate on that.

Morrison says without top-notch infrastructure, the region could lose its competitive advantage. Northeast Ohio is currently a major hub for distribution of goods now thanks to our efficient highway system, he says. But it won't stay that way without investing in upkeep. The problem, according to Morrison, is that federal funding is based on population, and while the region's transportation needs are growing, its population is not.

Hunter Morrison: So if we don't have more people, and yet we have more roads and bridges and sewer and water lines to service, we're spreading the peanut butter thinner and thinner on the bread. One of the biggest challenges we face is how to meet the infrastructure demands of the growing expanding portions of our region while meeting the continuing system maintenance needs of existing communities.

There are no easy solutions, Morrison says. We can hope for new funding formulas or we could rethink the region's development patterns. Or, Morrison says, solving the infrastructure issue could be the starting point for regional cooperation. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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