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Deteriorating Infrastructure and How We Can Improve

November 23, 2009

I heard that Federal Stimulus funds were going to be used for ‘shovel-ready’ projects, aimed at creating jobs and improving Massachusetts’s crumbling infrastructure. So when I heard that $9 million was approved to build a footbridge over Route 1, connecting Patriot Place mall with a proposed office park and allowing pedestrians easier access to parking lots outside Gillette stadium, I was pretty outraged. Deval Patrick added that this project would help lure bigger corporations to the state, improving jobs and our economy. In essence, more concrete sprawl at the cost of green space.

This on top of recent news that $15 million in stimulus funds will go to road improvements to aid the expansion of another private development — Assembly Square in Somerville. Featuring 5 million square feet of mixed used property, the new development will house furniture giant, IKEA, and a movie theater among other commercial spaces. So one has to consider, what effect will the diversion of these funds to development projects ultimately have on our economy and our state?

Well, consider this New York Times article: Sewers at Capacity, Pollution Spills Into Waterways. I highly urge you to read the article, but the idea is that our rapidly growing population, particularly in metropolitan areas, is having detrimental effects on our outdated infrastructure, particularly our sewer systems. Sewage treatment plants, overburdened by human waste mixed with stormwater runoff, reach capacity quickly when it rains, and they are forced to shut intake gates. This backs up sewers throughout cities, and overflows of waste pour out into lakes, canals, rivers, the ocean, even streets or near drinking water intake points. Though this violates the Clean Water Act, fines are rarely collected. As the article states,

In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.

But fewer than one in five sewage systems that broke the law were ever fined or otherwise sanctioned by state or federal regulators, the Times analysis shows.

Some argue that fines would create political tensions, while others argue that diverting more money from already stretched budgets would only perpetuate deteriorating infrastructure.

As storms seem to become more severe, the problems are only getting worse. In 2007, New York City had three 25-year storms, storms only expected once every 25 years. Overflows are then inevitable, shutting down beaches, putting human health at risk and creating unsanitary living conditions.

SO what can be done? There are a number of solutions, both for new infrastructure and retrofitting old systems.

* Porous pavement. Sidewalks, parking lots, walkways can all be paved with porous materials so that stormwater seeps through and is gradually absorbed by the land.

* Increase landscaped areas. More green space means more water can be absorbed and less will run into storm water drains.

* Residential water conservation such as dual-flush toliets, low-flow showerheads, greywater systems, rain barrels to reduce the amount of water added to our sewer systems.

* Green roofs. They greatly reduce storm water runoff not to mention they reduce heating & cooling bills, attract wildlife, reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and they last longer than traditional roofs. They should be implemented wherever possible.

* Clean sidewalks with brooms instead of high-pressure water

* Design buildings and parking garages vertically and efficiently to reduce sprawl

* Improve our sewer systems so that water treatment plants aren’t overburdened

These are just some of the ways we can improve our sewage and storm water runoff. Generations have had access to clean water, and have been able to flush their waste away into a vast system without so much as a second thought. But many people have died of waterborne diseases, and many more have died because they are denied access to clean water. So whether a pedestrian footbridge will be more money into our economy in the next few years is debatable, but what will happen to our sewer systems? To our bridges? Our dams? Levees?

The American Society of Civil Engineers has produced a ‘report card’ for America’s infrastructure and our grades aren’t anything to bring home. Average GPA? D. And what does the ASCE predict the improvements will cost? Roughly $2.2 trillion. The longer we wait, the higher the cost and the worse the repercussions.

We have recently hit a huge landmark: The United Nations Population Fund reports that in 2008, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population is living in towns and cities. The wave of urbanization is just beginning to swell and how we deal with infrastructure and accommodate that growth will dictate our future.


photo via flickr user sea turtle



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