An American sinkhole

On the afternoon of Tuesday, May 12, Infrastructure Investor reporter Chase Collum took what was a rather uneventful, quiet Amtrak trip back home from Washington, D.C., to New York after a weeklong visit exploring policy issues and hearing about opportunities in the US infrastructure space.

Just two hours after disembarking, however, the troubled state of US rail infrastructure was highlighted by a tragically fatal crash along that very same corridor, claiming eight lives, injuring hundreds more, and costing an estimated total of $100 million per day in economic impact related to service interruptions that followed.

Two days later, directly outside our offices in Manhattan, a sinkhole quickly developed under the centre lane of East 46th Street at midday.

Using a long iron pole, road workers found evidence of flowing water under the roadway and identified it as a possible culprit, highlighting two of the most beleaguered components of US infrastructure: the water system and the road system. Every two minutes a water pipe bursts. Bizarrely, some of Chicago’s water pipes are still made out of hollowed-out logs. Roads are riddled with potholes and patched together by as many as 60,000 structurally-deficient bridges.

Meanwhile in Washington, the talk of the town is focused on whether or not it is yet, or will soon be, politically feasible to pass a long-term infrastructure funding bill – specifically one that would reauthorise and replenish the Highway Trust Fund (HTF).

As it stands, a 33rd consecutive short-term measure was required to keep HTF funds flowing into June, and many are worried the US will miss out on the benefits offered by an ostensibly fleeting low interest rate environment, presenting a solid case for an immediate, strong commitment to long-term funding measures.

Infrastructure is, however, infiltrating the public dialogue and becoming increasingly “sexy”, despite comedian and TV host John Oliver’s recent satirical coverage noting the asset class’s lack of sex appeal (catch the YouTube clip if you can). So there is hope that the stalemate will soon be breached, but as yet no-one is leading the conversation in presenting truly workable solutions.

Until that occurs, those who depend on transport and water infrastructure in the US will have to keep on betting with their lives that short-term patches in legislation, pipework and pavement will be enough to support the weight of American needs.