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We Ignore Our Infrastructure at Our Peril

If you didn’t see and read this you really should…

It was published in the History News Network Newsletter. I think we need to worry about terrorists but we also need to worry about the condition of our infrastructure and it’s continuing rate of deterioration…


We Ignore Our Infrastructure at Our Peril

By Carl A. Zimring

Carl A. Zimring is Assistant Professor of Social Science and Sustainability Studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He holds a PhD in history from Carnegie Mellon University. His dissertation, “Recycling for Profit: The Evolution of the American Scrap Industry,” was published by Rutgers University Press in 2009. He is currently conducting research for his forthcoming book, “Clean and White: The Racialization of Waste in Modern America

The explosions were horrifying.  A quiet residential subdivision south of San Francisco was consumed by a massive fireball in the early evening of September 9.  Firefighters who rushed to the scene initially thought that an airplane had crashed into the neighborhood.

No airplanes crashed, but the thought was understandable.  By the time the fire was contained, fifteen acres of suburban San Bruno had burned, with thirty-seven homes destroyed.  Within one week, six people were confirmed dead and more than four dozen were hospitalized.  The damage to people and property was on a scale of an air tragedy.

The cause of the fireball was not an airplane, nor a bomb, but the kind of infrastructure Americans reply upon every day to feed our creature comforts.  The fuel for the explosion was natural gas, the gas San Bruno residents relied upon to heat their homes and light their stoves.  A pipe built in 1956 to deliver that gas had ruptured, releasing highly flammable fuel into the air.  While an investigation into what triggered the fireball is ongoing, residents had complained for years about possible leaks producing odors in the neighborhood.

The tragedy in San Bruno should draw our attention to the infrastructure upon which we rely every day.  Millions of homes across the United States are woven together in networks of pipes and wires that deliver heat, electricity, and water to us.  Almost every day, this infrastructure serves us so efficiently that we do not notice the dire toll of age and use.  Rarely does it fail us on the scale that it did in San Bruno.

It does happen.  One January day in 1992, a similar explosion ripped through several apartment buildings on the northwest side of Chicago, killing four people and injuring many more.  In the weeks after that explosion, local and national news reported that the sixty-eight-year-old gas mains that produced the explosion were of the same age and type of those found in several other areas of the city, leading to a wave of “around the clock” (in the words of a People’s Gas spokesman) inspections and replacements of pipes in the months ahead.

Chicago received another reminder about the vulnerability of its infrastructure a few months later.  In April, contractors working in the Chicago River inadvertently punctured the ceiling of a forgotten freight tunnel below, causing over 100 million gallons of water to flood into the sixty-two-mile tunnel system feeding into the basements of office and retail buildings and knocking out gas and electricity service to much of downtown.  Fortunately, no one was injured, but property damage in the Great Chicago Flood exceeded $1 billion.  The unusual disaster made international news for days as workers struggled to remove the water pouring into the city’s central business district.

The freight tunnel through which the water poured was forgotten because few in 1992 remembered that Chicago had once used freight tunnels underneath the city.  The tunnel system under Chicago’s downtown was built at the start of the twentieth centu\ry to transport coal and solid waste via rail to and from the buildings without clogging the above-ground streets.  Changes to heating and plumbing led to the end of freight traffic in the tunnels by 1960, and the tunnels became conduits for power and gas lines.  What remained beneath the city’s streets lay forgotten.

Our gas mains may not be as utterly forgotten as the freight tunnels were, but they are taken for granted.  What happened in residential communities in Chicago in 1992 and San Bruno this year is possible in countless communities across the country.  In areas of the United States ranging from Boston to Los Angeles, the networks of pipe branching through cities and suburbs were laid between half a century and a century ago.  When we think of gas, it is usually in relation to our monthly utility bills, or in relation to our thermostats and stoves.  Few households use stoves more than fifty years old, but those stoves may well be connected to pipes far older than that.

Utilities do perform inspections of their infrastructure but Pacific Gas and Electric conducted regular surveys of its pipes in San Bruno without revealing signs of wear or decay.  No doubt depositions in future court actions will reveal the number and thoroughness of those inspections, especially given residents’ recent documented complaints.

The gas mains in San Bruno are only in the news because they failed spectacularly.  Those of us who live “on the grid” in metropolitan America are completely dependent upon this mass of technology that sustains our homes and businesses.  Most of us do not give it a second thought unless service is disrupted.

Remembering the infrastructure beneath us enough to understand the rigors we put it through and ensure it is properly maintained should not be difficult.  We may better understand (to paraphrase historian Harold Platt) our society and culture by studying the historical processes that led to the building and maintenance of our infrastructure.  Highly engaging books about the development of networks of pipes, corridors, and wires in the industrialized world include Platt’s The Electric City: Energy and the Growth of the Chicago Area, 1880-1930; the volume Technology and the Rise of the Networked City in Europe and America, edited by Joel Tarr and Gabriel Dupuy; and Mark H. Rose’s Cities of Light and Heat: Domesticating Gas and Electricity in Urban America.  These books should appeal to a larger audience than engineers and urban designers, as they reveal not only the mechanics of infrastructure development but ways in which social and economic forces have shaped where infrastructure is built, how well it is built, and how it is (or is not) maintained.  Decisions made decades ago shape even today who gets access to modern amenities, what those amenities are, and the risks we take to enjoy those amenities.

Urban environmental history provides us an understanding of how our modern infrastructure developed and what the potential risks are.  Our challenge is drawing upon that knowledge to ensure that oft-neglected infrastructure is maintained to serve us safely and effectively.  At Chicago’s Roosevelt University, we have recently developed a sustainability studies major that uses the history of the metropolitan area to discuss present and future efforts to make the systems managing water, waste, energy, food, and transportation safer and more equitable for people and biota affected by the region.  This is but one of many possible approaches to using history that may elevate our awareness of infrastructure and its risks.  Chicago’s infrastructure failures in 1992 made news for a while and then receded from public memory.  Let us work to ensure that the tragedy in San Bruno allows us to develop a better understanding of the networks beneath our feet.

Construction Job Growth Encouraging, But Hole Remains Deep

“We can’t afford to let the men and women who build America’s backbone – its roads, bridges, energy and water systems, and its schools – be left behind as the economic recovery continues”

On Friday the U.S. Labor Department reported that the jobs situation in the construction industry – a key driver of the U.S. economy – improved slightly for the second consecutive month, while still lagging behind other sectors. The number of construction jobs increased by 14,000, but construction unemployment still remained near Depression-era levels at 21.8 percent. Currently, more than 1.9 million construction workers are still looking for work.

Terry O’Sullivan, General President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) made the following statement today regarding the jobs report:

Two straight months of job growth is undoubtedly a good thing for the millions of construction workers struggling to get by. Still, the numbers show that unemployment in this vital area of the economy is far, far higher than almost any other part of the labor force.

We can’t afford to let the men and women who build America’s basics – its roads, bridges, energy and water systems, and its schools – be left behind as the economic recovery continues. If we do so, it won’t just be construction workers who pay the price – it will also be paid by everyone as our basic needs go neglected.

It’s time for Congress to take this problem seriously and invest in building America. Let’s pass a comprehensive highway bill. Let’s modernize our aging water resources facilities, our schools and our energy systems. And let’s put men and women back to work while leaving a legacy that will last for generations and allow our country to compete in the 21st century.

ICUEE 2011 Exhibit Space Sales Open June 1 -
New Exhibit Pavilions Set for Fleet Management and Renewable Energy

Exhibit space sales open June 1, 2010 for the next International Construction and Utility Equipment Exposition (ICUEE), to be held October 4-6, 2011 at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

ICUEE is geared to the utility/construction industry, with a focus on the electric, phone/cable, sewer/water, gas, general construction, landscaping and public works sectors. The show is known for extensive hands-on equipment demonstrations of underground, at ground and aerial equipment in job-like conditions.

Deadline is August 15, 2010 to be included in the first round of exhibit space assignments. After that date, exhibit space will be assigned on a first come, first served basis.

To help promote their show participation to customers and prospects, exhibitors have access, at no charge, to a variety of print and electronic marketing tools. They can also take advantage of show sponsorship and other marketing opportunities, including customized programs, to extend their brand awareness.

New for the 2011 ICUEE are a Fleet Management exhibit pavilion and a Renewable Energy exhibit pavilion. The New Product & Technology Program returns, spotlighting companies with products new to market since the last show was held. Robust industry educational programs will complement ICUEE exhibits. ICUEE 2011 will again feature co-location of the H2O-XPO show of the National Rural Water Association (NRWA) and the Incident Prevention (iP) Safety Conference and Expo.

Some 96 percent of attendees at the last ICUEE said they were likely to extremely likely to attend ICUEE 2011, according to an attendee survey from the last show, which was held in 2009 and was the second- largest in show history.  Nearly 80 percent of survey respondents said they participate in company purchasing decisions.

“ICUEE attracts quality decision-makers and leading companies, and these buyers and sellers understand the invaluable face-to-face interaction and one-stop convenience of a trade show,” stated Show Director Melissa Magestro.

For more information click here.


The U.S. Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce announced today that construction spending during March 2010 was estimated at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $847.3 billion, 0.2 percent (±1.3%)* above the revised February estimate of $845.5 billion. The March figure is 12.3 percent (±1.4%) below the March 2009 estimate of $966.7 billion.

During the first 3 months of this year, construction spending amounted to $179.9 billion, 14.0 percent (±1.3%) below the $209.2 billion for the same period in 2009.


Spending on private construction was at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $550.8 billion, 0.9 percent (±1.4%)* below the revised February estimate of $555.7 billion. Residential construction was at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $251.8 billion in March, 1.1 percent (±1.3%)* below the revised February estimate of $254.6 billion. Nonresidential construction was at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $299.0 billion in March, 0.7 percent (±1.4%)* below the revised February estimate of $301.1 billion.


In March, the estimated seasonally adjusted annual rate of public construction spending was $296.5 billion, 2.3 percent (±1.9%) above the revised February estimate of $289.9 billion. Educational construction was at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $75.9 billion, 2.2 percent (±3.0%)* below the revised February estimate of $77.6 billion. Highway construction was at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $78.1 billion, 1.5 percent (±7.4%)* above the revised February estimate of $77.0 billion.


In interpreting changes in the statistics in this release, note that month-to-month changes in seasonally adjusted statistics often show movements, which may be irregular. It may take 2 months to establish an underlying trend for total construction and as long as 8 months for specific categories of construction. The statistics in this release are estimated from several sources and surveys and are subject to sampling variability as well as no sampling error including bias and variance from response, no reporting, and under coverage. Estimates of the standard errors are provided in Table 3. Whenever a statement such as “2.3 (±3.1) percent above” appears in the text, this indicates the range (-0.8 to +5.4 percent) in which the actual percent change is likely to have occurred. All ranges given are 90 percent confidence intervals and account only for sampling variability. If a range does not contain zero, the change is statistically significant. If it does contain zero, the change is not statistically significant; that is, it is uncertain whether there was an increase or decrease. Statistics for the current month are preliminary estimates subject to revision in following months as additional data become available. The average absolute percent changes from preliminary estimate to first revision for the major seasonally adjusted components are as follows: total construction, 1.2 percent; private construction, 1.9 percent; and public construction, 1.2 percent.

In the May 2010 press release, revisions to unadjusted and seasonally adjusted data will revise back to January 2004 to incorporate and benchmark to the 2008 detailed structures data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Capital Expenditures Survey.