By Andrew Stern
CHICAGO, July 31 (Reuters) - A $1.6 trillion bill is coming due across the United States as governments face the daunting task of repairing roads, bridges and other parts of an aging infrastructure.
It is a problem exacerbated by the floods that spread misery across the Midwest this year, and one bound to squeeze budgets hit by the economic downturn all the more.
State transportation officials in the flood zone say roads and bridges that did not wash away have been inspected and temporary repairs have made them passable.
But the cost of permanent repairs on hundreds of miles (kilometres) of flood-damaged roads and other infrastructure is still being assessed, with some of it to be passed on to the federal government.
That won’t address the immediate needs in hard-hit Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where hundreds of displaced residents and businesses have dim prospects of resuming life as normal.
The Cedar River spilled into 10 square miles (26 sq km) of the city of 123,000 residents. More than 18,000 people were affected, and Cedar Rapids may need $3 billion to recover.
For the United States as a whole, civil engineers say the nation’s unpaid $1.6 trillion infrastructure repair bill is overdue. The flood damage to bridges, roads, public buildings and other facilities will only add to the tally.
‘BUILD IT TODAY’
"One of the problems with infrastructure spending is we tend to treat it as an operating expense as opposed to a capital investment," Northwestern University civil engineering professor Joseph Schofer said.
"Everything is ‘build it today’ and once that’s done, forget about that and build something else," he said.
Schofer said he did not anticipate a spike in bridge failures due to the flooding, but the scouring from rushing water can weaken bridge foundations and may be hard to detect.
Bridge failures have been blamed for 47 U.S. deaths in the last 20 years -- 13 in the collapse a year ago in Minneapolis.
State transportation officials issued an estimate this week that at least $140 billion was needed to make major repairs or upgrades to 152,000 of the nation’s 590,000 bridges -- one in four -- deemed deficient. The spans that were built to last 50 years are on average 43 years old.
Projections indicate bridges will carry more traffic in coming years. The amount of freight is to double by 2025 to 31 million tonnes per year, with more than half shipped by truck.
To keep up with transportation needs, public and private spending on transit infrastructure will need to increase by $20 billion a year from the $106 billion spent in 2006, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress.
LACK OF FUNDING
But in the midst of a sagging economy, governments lack the funds to get the job done.
The Federal Highway Administration, which covers roughly 80 percent of the cost of rehabilitating ruined highways, bridges and roads, has a $700 million backlog in reimbursing states.
The fund receives $100 million annually and the backlog should not delay repair work, a spokesman said.
"There are many countries (in Europe) doing very strategic and systematic infrastructure planning ... . We’re not doing that," Schofer said.
European nations cooperate to build complementary networks of roads and rails, and emerging economic powers China and India are spending heavily on infrastructure.
U.S. spending on roads, bridges and passenger rail amounts to 0.6 percent of gross domestic product, compared to China’s 9 percent and the European Union’s 3.5 percent.
NO SHORTAGE OF PROPOSALS
Some in Congress argue that spending to rebuild infrastructure would be a more effective boost to the faltering economy than the recent round of stimulus checks. Critics say construction projects take too long to have an economic impact.
Other suggestions to generate revenue for infrastructure include increasing the federal gas tax, charging tolls on more roads, creating an "infrastructure bank" to dole out low-cost loans, or selling or leasing toll roads to the private sector as has been done in Chicago and Indiana.
Meanwhile, there are urgent needs in Cedar Rapids.
The damaged water treatment plant is sending sewage into the Cedar River, a railroad bridge washed away, scores of houses need to be torn down and some downtown buildings may have to be demolished. Public buildings including the jail and a school were ruined.
"The adrenaline phase is over and the reality phase is settling in and it’s not a very pretty reality in a lot of cases," said Lee Clancey of the city’s chamber of commerce. (Editing by Michael Conlon and Xavier Briand)