By Chuck McCutcheon
Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON — A pipeline shuts down in Alaska. Equipment failures disrupt air travel in Los Angeles. Electricity runs short at a spy agency in Maryland.
None of these recent events resulted from a natural disaster or terrorist attack, but they may as well have, some homeland security experts say. They worry that too little attention is paid to how fast the country’s basic operating systems are deteriorating.
“When I see events like these, I become concerned that we’ve lost focus on the core operational functionality of the nation’s infrastructure and are becoming a fragile nation, which is just as bad — if not worse — as being an insecure nation,” said Christian Beckner, a Washington analyst who runs the respected Web site Homeland Security Watch (www.christianbeckner.com).
The American Society of Civil Engineers last year graded the nation “D” for its overall infrastructure conditions, estimating that it would take $1.6 trillion over five years to fix the problem.
“I thought [Hurricane] Katrina was a hell of a wake-up call, but people are missing the alarm,” said Casey Dinges, the society’s managing director of external affairs.
British oil company BP announced this month that severe corrosion would close its Alaska pipelines for extensive repairs. Analysts say this may sideline some 200,000 barrels a day of production for several months.
Then an instrument landing system that guides arriving planes onto a runway at Los Angeles International Airport failed for the second time in a week, delaying flights.
Those incidents followed reports that the National Security Agency (NSA), the intelligence world’s electronic eavesdropping arm, is consuming so much electricity at its headquarters outside Washington that it is in danger of exceeding its power supply.
“If a terrorist group were able to knock the NSA offline, or disrupt one of the nation’s busiest airports, or shut down the most important oil pipeline in the nation, the impact would be perceived as devastating,” Beckner said. “And yet we’ve essentially let these things happen — or almost happen — to ourselves.”
The Commission on Public Infrastructure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said in a recent report that facilities are deteriorating “at an alarming rate.”
It noted that half the 257 locks operated by the Army Corps of Engineers on inland waterways are functionally obsolete, more than one-quarter of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete, and $11 billion is needed annually to replace aging drinking-water facilities.
President Bush, asked about the problem during a public question-and-answer session in an April visit to Irvine, Calif., cited last year’s enactment of a comprehensive law reauthorizing highway, transit and road-safety programs.
“Infrastructure is always a difficult issue,” Bush acknowledged. “It’s a federal responsibility and a state and local responsibility. And I, frankly, feel like we’ve upheld our responsibility at the federal level with the highway bill.”
But experts say the law is riddled with some 5,000 “earmarks” for projects sought by members of Congress that do nothing to systematically address the problem.
“There’s a growing understanding that these programs are at best inefficient and at worst corrupt,” said Everett Ehrlich, executive director of the CSIS public infrastructure commission.
Ehrlich and others cite several reasons for the lack of action:
• The political system is geared to reacting to crises instead of averting them.
• Some politicians don’t see infrastructure as a federal responsibility.
• And many problems are out of sight and — for the public — out of mind.
“You see bridges and roads and potholes, but so much else is hidden and taken for granted,” said Dinges of the Society of Civil Engineers. “As a result, people just don’t get stirred up and alarmed.”
But a few politicians are starting to notice. In March, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., joined Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Tom Carper, D-Del., in sponsoring a bill to set up a national commission to assess infrastructure needs.
That same month, the CSIS infrastructure commission issued a set of principles calling for increased spending, investments in new technologies and partnerships with business. Among those signing the report were Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn.
“Infrastructure deficiencies will further erode our global competitiveness, but with the federal budget so committed to mandatory spending, it’s unclear how we are going to deal with this challenge as we fall further and further behind in addressing these problems,” Hagel said in a speech last year. “We need to think creatively.”