America's infrastructure disaster — and why Donald Trump will do nothing to fix it

As the Oroville Dam near-disaster makes plain, America's infrastructure is crumbling. Trump's plan is empty talk

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published March 5, 2017 5:00PM (EST)

 (AP/Mark Lennihan)
(AP/Mark Lennihan)

America's about to get a report card on March 9, and by all indications, it's not going to look good. It's coming from the American Society of Civil Engineers on the state of the nation's infrastructure, and when it comes to infrastructure, we’re not Lisa Simpson. We’re Bart.

The last time it was issued, back 2013, our infrastructure got an overall grade of D+, with a projected $3.6 trillion investment needed by 2020 — more than 3 1/2 times the amount that President Donald Trump has promised (mostly from private investors) over a much longer period. Grades ranged from a high of a single B- for solid waste to a low of D- in two categories — levees and inland waterways. There were more straight Ds than anything else—  for schools, dams, aviation, roads, transit, wastewater, drinking water and hazardous waste. Rail and bridges both rated C+, ports a straight C, public parks and recreation a C- and energy a D+. Even Bart wouldn’t be proud of that.

It wasn’t always this way. Eighty years ago, in response to the Great Depression, the federal government under Franklin D. Roosevelt put millions of people to work building and rebuilding America’s infrastructure — hundreds of hospitals, thousands of fire stations and new or improved airports, over half a million miles of rural roads and much, much more — bridges, viaducts, wharves, subways, railroads, dams, reservoirs, power plants, lighthouses. You name it, they built it. It’s a story told by Robert Leighninger in his book, "Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal," and summarized with his permission in this Daily Kos diary. A detailed database of New Deal projects is available from the FDR library here.

Not only did Roosevelt give millions of workers the chance to salvage their dignity, their families and their lives, he laid America’s physical foundations for generations to come. The failure to respond similarly to the Great Recession seven decades later is perhaps the main reason for the anemic recovery we’ve experienced, and the broader loss of social confidence and cohesion that prepared the way for Donald Trump. The social cost of the failure to act was virtually incalculable.

The financial costs of infrastructure deficit are just part of that larger picture, but they’re still overwhelming. Last year, in a report, “Failure to Act,” ASCE projected the cost of that deficit as follows:

From 2016 to 2025, each household will lose $3,400 each year in disposable income due to infrastructure deficiencies; and if not addressed, the loss will grow to an average of $5,100 annually from 2026 to 2040, resulting in cumulative losses up to almost $34,000 per household from 2016 to 2025 and almost $111,000 from 2016 to 2040.

Put simply, the cost/benefit tradeoff is a no-brainer:

Our nation’s infrastructure bill is overdue, and that’s costing every American family $9 each day. If we invest $3 more a day per family until 2025, we could eliminate the costly investment gap.

So Trump’s absolutely right that America has a massive infrastructure debt, which he’s pledged to fix. But he's approaching it as someone who has always relied on others building public infrastructure so that he can benefit from it.  At least he realizes public infrastructure is valuable — unlike congressional Republicans -- which gets it on the agenda, but he’s approaching it in a typically crony-capitalist manner. 

As economist Gerald Epstein explained in a recent Salon interview, Trump is "proposing a privatization plan: Huge tax subsidies for wealthy investors and hedge funds and private equity funds and bankers, to privatize public bridges, roads and things like that.” Infrastructure that can’t turn a tidy profit for some fat cat somewhere is not even on the radar in this approach. Infrastructure upgrades and repairs — the largest share of our infrastructure deficit — aren’t even off the radar, they’re off-off-radar.

What's needed is a radically different viewpoint — something analogous to what we're seeing around healthcare at recent town halls — that puts the public (public service, public health and public safety) at its center. A necessary ingredient in that is to consider disastrous infrastructure failures (like the recent near-catastrophe at the Oroville Dam in northern California) and what can be learned from them, in contrast to how other countries deal with them — just as single-payer advocates say we should learn from how other countries provide universal healthcare at much lower cost.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the Oroville Dam situation a “textbook example” of the need for a major infrastructure “overhaul,” but the real story there was the exact opposite of another, related aspect of Trump’s agenda: getting rid of regulations that protect the public. Lax regulation is what allowed the near-disaster to happen. And if it had happened, Trump voters would have paid the dearest price. California voted for Hillary Clinton two-to-one, but Trump narrowly carried Butte County, home to the Oroville Dam, and he won by over 20 points in neighboring Yuba, Sutter and Plumas counties. Who was looking out for those folks, more than a decade before disaster struck? Environmentalists like Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate with Friends of the River, that’s who. Certainly not Donald Trump.

State and federal regulators ignored years of dam safety warnings from environmentalists and local governments, which dated back to around 2001, as Stork explained to me. Stork and others spent several years trying to get California’s Department of Water Resources to address the dam’s deficiencies — especially the unpaved emergency spillway, whose rapid erosion nearly brought down the dam’s concrete containment structure.

We then reached the conclusion that the Department of Water Resources was never going to listen to us, and so we filed formal motions in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is the regulator of the department facilities at Oroville,” Stork said. That was during the dam’s relicensing, which concluded in 2007. “We were thoroughly defeated. Squashed like a bug. But at least we had our shot at it, and fortunately nobody yet has died, but we were within minutes of that happening.”

UC Berkeley professor emeritus Bob Bea, known as “The Master of Disaster,” has seen it all before — from the Exxon Valdez to Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon, he’s been intimately involved in investigating many of the major headline infrastructure failures of the past 30 years. “We in essence wait until the system fails, at that point we react, or we fix it, and then return back to our own normal lives,” Bea told me.

“There are three fundamental risk assessment approaches,” Bea explained. “Proactive, before major activities are performed; reactive, after major activities are performed; and interactive, during performance of major activities).” After a disastrous flood in 1956, Bea said, the Dutch decided couldn't “afford the cost associated with these failures,” and devoted significant resources to both proactive and interactive measures. Despite spending so much money ensuring their safety — or perhaps because of that — the Netherlands still has one of the world’s most successful economies, and many other countries have followed their lead.

In the case of the Oroville Dam, Bea told me, “The relicensing was a perfect opportunity to perform interactive risk assessment — to detect new challenges to the system, to analyze what had been detected, to determine what should be done to properly address the 'new' risks that had been detected, and then to implement corrective measures to reduce the risks to be as low as reasonably practicable.”

Two new challenges stood out like sore thumbs. First (as Friends of the River pointed out early on), the Oroville Dam had been built with the expectation that another dam to be built nearby would share its flood control burden, most crucially during extreme events. That dam never happened. Second, there was the increased risk of major flooding due to climate change. When Butte and Plumas counties challenged the DWR’s environmental review, they relied on science developed by DWR’s own scientists, but still lost at trial, as Scientific American reported. The case is still being appealed. Since then, a third cause for concern has emerged. High Country News reports that there's new evidence, spanning thousands of years, that extreme flood events are much more frequent than was previously believed, based solely on records since the lands were settled in the late 1800s. This applies to both California and the Colorado Plateau.

A reactive risk-management approach simply isn’t capable of dealing with such new information, however important it may be for managing risk and saving lives. But there are ways to do much better. Bea has developed a database of over 600 infrastructure disasters, based on which he’s developed a “disaster roadmap,” a broad-based view far beyond what’s apparent from any one case.

Bea discovered that infrastructure failures derive from four kinds of uncertainty producing unexpected results. First, natural variability — in weather, earthquakes, materials, etc. Second, uncertainty in models. Third, uncertainty involving “human task performance and organizational task performance.” Fourth, “uncertainty posed by our knowledge, how we acquired it and how we use it.”

While engineers and plant managers might be well aware of the first two types of problems, that’s not where most of the risk comes from, Bea told me. “We found that more than 80 percent of the causes of major failures of these infrastructures systems . . . were rooted in these last two categories of uncertainty – people and their organizations,” he said. What’s more, “We discovered that in more than 80 percent of the defects, the failures are showing up in operations and maintenance, the long-term lifecycle.” That in turn “focused our attention on what we call infrastructure geriatrics,” how infrastructure ages, developing new weaknesses.

A curious disconnect lies at the heart of America’s infrastructure safety problem. On the one hand, “Engineers want to believe the planet is not inhabited,” as Bea recalls legendary engineer and science advisor Ed Wenk telling him. That’s why the human and organizational causes are commonly overlooked. On the other hand, politicians and regulators seem to believe the planet isn’t governed by physical laws. DWR’s lawyers arguing against its own scientists on climate change was an example of that.

Hurricane Katrina was a wakeup call of sorts. One place that got the message was the Sacramento River Delta region of California, where Bea spent six years on a study sponsored by the National Science Foundation studying complex infrastructure systems such as levees, bridges, pipelines, power transmission and telecommunications. “We found that the risks associated with major flooding events were not 'tolerable' based on U.S. and international guidelines,” Bea told me, but that “after the dust settled, no significant actions were taken to effectively reduce the risks." So another major disaster is just waiting to happen. 

In the wake of the Oroville Dam crisis, the San Jose Mercury News reported, “As of 2015, California oversaw 1,250 dams, of which 678 were deemed “high hazard” because of the consequences of their failure, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.” Nationwide, the ASDSO warned, "From 1998 to 2008, the recorded number of deficient dams (those with structural or hydraulic deficiencies leaving them susceptible to failure) rose by 137 percent — from 1,818 to 4,308," and the cost of dam rehabilitation nationwide has only increased since then, from $51.5 billion in 2009 to $60.7 billion in 2016.

To the hopeful, at least such accounting suggests an intention and desire to fix things, before people needlessly die. But Bea’s experience in the Delta region suggests something else: After all that effort was expended on understanding the problem, the will to do anything about it seems to have dissolved. The end result was “radio silence,” as Bea put it. He’s used the term repeatedly to describe the inaction that so often sets in, just when significant corrective actions ought to be launched. We need to consider the persistent failure to take corrective action, he argues, as another factor contributing to the risk of infrastructure failure — an inherent part of the problem confronting us.


Bea himself provides a basis for doing just this in a 2009 paper, “A New Approach to Risk.” In it, he presents a model for analyzing risk for complex infrastructure systems (CISs) in terms of four distinct levels — a slightly different model than his disaster roadmap, but clearly related to it. First is the level of physical systems and components, the traditional focus of engineering risk analysis. Second is the level of individual human factors, “individual differences, personality, training, and so on.” Third is the level of “organizational attributes” studied by sociologists, management experts, etc. Finally, “Level 4 incorporates broader societal factors that affect both organizational processes and the physical elements of CISs. This level consists of more macro-level factors such as governance, laws and regulatory regimes, and social, demographic and economic forces that must also be taken into account in CISs risk and vulnerability analyses.”

What I’m suggesting is simple: When an analysis like this is done, and then no corrective action is taken, the risk model must be revised to include the failure to act as a level 4 risk factor, contributing to future disaster. Indeed, the ingrained predisposition to reactive risk analysis seen in America (as opposed to most of Europe, for example) should be part of the level 4 analysis in the first place.  The exact same physical infrastructure system in the U.S. and the Netherlands would be far more dangerous here, because of our failure to adopt a culture of proactive and interactive risk management.

President Trump has promised to unleash a wave of infrastructure spending. How much of that wave will materialize is anybody’s guess. How much will genuinely meet America’s most pressing needs is even more doubtful. How much will benefit his very wealthy friends -- that will surely be just about all of it. But given how aggressively Trump has already begun to roll back protective regulations, it’s almost a dead certainty that his policies will do more harm than good. What he promises to give with one hand, he is already smashing to bits with the other. The unaddressed costs of global warming alone will likely dwarf everything positive his infrastructure spending might do, let alone all the other concerns.

And global warming is just one risk he’s excluding from consideration. What about the children of Flint, Michigan? Or the "water protectors" of North Dakota? Or the next victims of an oil train or refinery explosion? For people to fight back against what Trump is proposing, the unity that’s been seen so far will need the support of a shared understanding. Fortunately, thanks to Bob Bea, a road map for combatting disaster is well within reach.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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