Last year the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh collapsed hours before a planned visit by President Joe Biden; he was scheduled to give a speech addressing America’s infrastructure. About an hour’s drive northwest of Pittsburgh sits East Palestine, Ohio, where a train carrying hazardous materials derailed earlier this month, leading to the town’s evacuation and causing a public health crisis that has yet to be resolved. The two incidents, one year and roughly 50 miles apart, are not disconnected: They point to a widespread rot afflicting America’s transportation networks, public schools, health care facilities, energy grid, and other critical infrastructure that is already causing dangerous failures like the ones in Pittsburgh and East Palestine, and which appears likely to get worse before it gets better.
Because your electricity might not stay on long enough to reach the end of an article of any greater length, here is a brief survey of the current crisis afflicting America’s critical infrastructure.
The American rail system was given a respectable grade of “B” by the American Society of Civil Engineers in the organization’s most recent analysis of U.S. infrastructure in 2021. But that grade doesn’t fully reflect the dysfunction in the rail system. There have been 12,400 train derailments over the past 10 years, including 6,600 tankers holding hazardous liquids or gases with 348 of those tankers spilling their contents and at least 18,600 people forced to subsequently evacuate affected areas. As the Doomberg Substack recently reported, the transport of chemicals is a potentially explosive issue within the industry because “freight rail companies are forced by the federal government to transport dangerous materials regardless of the peril such cargoes represent.” At the same time, “the chemical industry all but accuses the big four Class I freight rail companies” of “operating as a de facto oligopoly, routinely using their excessive market power to extract disproportionate profits despite offering deteriorating service, risking public safety in the process.”
Not an ideal recipe for safe and efficient service …
If you put aside the current culture war over book bans and ideological purity tests for teachers, the crumbling physical infrastructure of America’s school buildings and the chronic absenteeism of America’s students should give you plenty to worry about.
While public school campuses currently account for the second biggest allotment of all public infrastructure expenses, the physical buildings and utilities that make up the school system at large were found to be nearly failing, receiving a “D-plus” grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2021. Citing at least 53% of all districts that required upgrades to multiple core building systems like HVAC and water pipes, the most recent Civil Engineer analysis of American schools also noted that at least 30% of all schools are so overcrowded that they now rely on trailers and other temporary structures.
Poorly weatherized classrooms are only part of what’s keeping students from showing up to class. After years of remote learning left kids with tenuous feelings of connection to their studies and stunted the development of social skills crucial for navigating the stress of adolescence, students across the nation have simply stopped showing up to class.
The latest data from New York City’s public school officials shows that at least 350,000 students are regularly missing school, with almost half of all students in the Bronx and 3 in every 5 students in Harlem chronically absent. Absenteeism “is something that is being experienced across the board [in California]” said Jacqueline Mora, an assistant superintendent in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. In Mora’s district, chronic absenteeism (a designation given to students who miss at least 10% of the school year) essentially doubled from 10% before the pandemic to 20% during the 2020-21 academic calendar. The most recent attendance record shows a 31% rate of chronic absenteeism. In Pennsylvania, “habitual truancy rates” more than doubled during the 2020-21 school year while Mississippi reported that 28% of its students missed at least 18 days during the 2021-22 calendar.
Though the statewide 30% absenteeism rate in Illinois is a little better than Chicago’s 45% chronic absenteeism in 2022, the poor attendance is nonetheless exacerbating a swift decline in academic performance across the entire Illinois school system. Almost 20% of the state’s schools reported that only 1 out of every 10 students can read at grade level. Statewide, 53 schools lack any students currently proficient in math. Remarkably, the Illinois State Board of Education rated several of these schools with zero math proficiency as “commendable,” the second-highest accountability rating it gives to its schools.
Over the past several years, extreme weather events have revealed an energy system that’s neither ready to transition to renewable sources nor able to rely on its existing facilities, which are long overdue for upgrades and repair. Last December, Winter Storm Elliott took coal and natural gas plants in Tennessee and North Carolina entirely offline and came close to leaving 65 million people with rolling blackouts as temperatures dipped below freezing. Despite hundreds of people dying during a similarly catastrophic winter storm in Texas in 2021, the Dallas Federal Reserve said in January that the state’s power grid remains entirely susceptible to another cold snap. “Wind and solar are the leading share of planned capacity additions in Texas over the next several years,” the Dallas Fed noted, “but with utilization rates that are well below installed capacity due to weather and time of day, their expected contributions are limited.”
It might not be a blizzard, however, that next knocks out your electricity. Poorly secured power stations and resentment toward inept government has led to a 71% increase in physical attacks on energy system infrastructure in 2022 compared to the year prior, according to a new Wall Street Journal analysis. Pointing to “people frustrated by the onset of the pandemic, social tensions and economic challenges,” the Journal projects 2023 will only see more strikes like the set of firearm attacks on several substations across North Carolina last December that left 45,000 residents without power.
“There seems to be a pattern where people are targeting critical infrastructure, probably with the intent to disrupt,” Manny Cancel, the chief executive of Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center, told The Wall Street Journal. “Going back to the 2020 presidential election, as well as the recent midterm elections, we’ve seen an uptick in chatter and an uptick in incidents as well.”
While the roughly 1.5 million health care employees who quit their jobs during the pandemic left the medical field with widespread staff shortages and hospitals reporting extensive delays for emergency care and surgical procedures, routine doctor visits have become their own bureaucratic nightmare. A new Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found that almost 1 in every 5 claims by patients with insurance purchased on the federal exchange were denied coverage. As high as that might be, some plans in the report were denying as many as 80% of claims for insurance coverage, a discrepancy that might be wider still, Kaiser said, if only insurance company data was uniformly collected. “The federal government has not expanded or revised transparency data reporting requirements in years and does not appear to conduct any oversight using data that are reported by marketplace plans.”
Residents downstream of East Palestine, Ohio, have learned that while the nation’s train system might be able to maintain the appearance of infrastructure integrity despite the occasional chemical spill, the water distribution network is far more susceptible to toxic encroachments. “I think it was not in the best interest of human health and welfare and the environment to simply cover [contaminated soil] up and keep going without at least a preliminary evaluation to determine if the level of vinyl chloride that was present in the soil was going to create a potential contamination threat to surface or groundwater,” Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice, an environmental consultant, told Ohio’s WKBN after Norfolk Southern simply dumped dirt over the trench used to burn off vinyl chloride that spilled from derailed train cars.
It’s a minor consolation for those in eastern Ohio to learn they’ve joined the ranks of dozens of communities across the nation struggling to access clean water and functional water treatment systems. Communities with dirty water, however, arguably have it better than the 2 million Americans who lack basic indoor plumbing altogether. “Because septic systems cost more than most people earn in a year and tend to fail anyway in the impervious clay soil of [Lowndes County, Alabama],” Catherine Coleman Flowers writes in Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. “Families cope the best they can, mainly by jerry-rigging PVC pipe to drain sewage from houses and into cesspools outside.”
While proper wastewater systems elude several rural regions, clean water in urban areas remains a perennial problem for many American cities. Last fall, old pipes ushered in an E. coli outbreak across Baltimore’s water system, and Michigan residents in Flint are still receiving advisories to boil their water as recently as this month, after a 2014 lead poisoning crisis impacted the drinking water of more than 100,000 homes. As one recent analysis found, “counties with elevated levels of incomplete plumbing and poor water quality in America—which are variously likely to be more indigenous, less educated, older, and poorer—are continuing to slip through the cracks.”
The Biden administration’s recent $26.5 billion package to address the American bridge crisis was among the largest federal interventions in the road system since the federal government began building interstate highways in 1956. Though with 43,000 bridges in need of immediate repair and a total of 220,000 bridges in need of upgrades, much of that money will be used to play catch-up on long neglected bridges. Politically important states like Pennsylvania, meanwhile, are scheduled to receive disproportionate chunks of the aid.
The reason why hundreds if not thousands of damaged bridges will ultimately be left untouched speaks to some of the larger issues afflicting American infrastructure decline writ large: No one person or agency is accountable, leaving public officials, utilities, and public servants the opportunity to say it’s someone else’s problem.
From Broken Infrastructure to Brokenness
Much is made of the collapse of trust in America’s public institutions like Congress and the press, but the country’s decrepit physical infrastructure seems to be contributing to the larger sense of national brokenness. In 2020, Pew found that national pride had dipped to a record low, with 21% of Americans either “only a little proud” or “not at all proud” to be an American.
Maybe national pride is too much to ask for when so many communities are struggling to maintain safe roads and clean drinking water. Last week, Vermont’s chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers took a look at nine categories of the state’s major infrastructure systems before granting an overall grade of a “C.” Mediocre as that might be, the report put Vermont a notch above the national average: a “C-minus.”
Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and the author of The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided, forthcoming from Penguin.