Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure | Can California's Infrastructure Stand up to Natural Disasters? - Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure
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NEWS

Can California’s Infrastructure Stand up to Natural Disasters?

28 Jul 2015, Posted in Blog Posts

California may be beautiful, but it is no secret that the state is subject to extreme conditions earthquake, drought, fire, and flood almost seem to replace winter, spring, summer, and fall. But despite the occasional shakedown, The Golden State has flourished as the seventh largest economy in the world. This economic vitality and the preservation of every Californian’s very way of life is dependent upon a complex network of roads and highways traversing the state. Like most of the United States, California’s infrastructure is sub-par. The American Society of Civil Engineers branded the state with a C- grade in transportation, warning that substantial financial commitment is required even to keep the state functioning at its current mediocre level.

The state highway system was designed in the first half of the 1900’s, about the same time that Ford released their popular Model A. Unlike the quickly developing auto industry, California’s 50,000 miles of highway did not see the same upgrades or aesthetic improvements in the past century. With the state’s propensity for sudden natural disasters, it is imperative that these realities are accounted for when assessing the quality of California’s infrastructure.

Caltrans, California’s aptly-named Department of Transportation, operates on a “fix-it-first” basis, prioritizing funding for the maintenance of existing structures over the construction of new ones. In their ten-year SHOPP plan, the department stresses the necessity to continually invest in maintenance, safety improvements, and modernization in order to keep the State Highway System functioning. An estimated $80 billion is needed over the span of ten years in order to meet this goal, but with only $2.3 billion in state and federal funding available each year, there is an obvious discrepancy between need and availability. With cars boasting an ever increasing fuel economy, revenues from gas taxes and fees are dwindling as well. Despite Caltrans’ commitment to maintaining the functionality of already existing ground transportation infrastructure, budgeting deficiencies necessitate that some well deserving projects will be skipped, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

In an exemplar case, historic rains in recent weeks punctuated the equally historic drought with storms dumping more water in one weekend than residents had seen over month-long stretches during the rainy season. But before picturing monsoon-like conditions, consider this – the historic precipitation seen in Southern California measured mere fractions of an inch. Very few cities experienced more than an inch of rain, and yet damages to roads and bridges were widespread.

Asphalt separating as a result of the rains opened a three-foot wide pothole North of Casitas on Interstate 5, causing major tire damage to multiple vehicles before eliciting a six-vehicle crash.

But the storm’s most notable story comes from 250 miles away, when flash floods brought traffic on Interstate 10 to a halt in Desert Center as the eastbound lanes spanning the normally dry Tex Wash gully collapsed, and struck the adjacent westbound bridge on their way down. As rainwater rushed through the creek below the now mangled bridge, soil around its concrete foundation was eroded away so much so that the bridge buckled, taking a single truck down with it. The injured driver was rescued two hours after the incident. The same amount of rain Washington, DC experienced in an hour or two of summer storming somehow flooded the detour route along Highway 78 a short while later, stranding drivers in the middle of the desert.

The I-10 Tex Wash Bridge, which acts as the main artery for passage between Southern California and Phoenix, Arizona, was completed in 1967 but deemed “functionally obsolete” in the 2013 National Bridge Inventory. Such a rating indicates that the structure is not suitable for continued use under current conditions, although no specific damages were reported. Despite this early warning and the fact that roughly 20,000 vehicles pass over the bridge each day, no remedial action was taken by Caltrans to address the structure’s potential for failure. Rather, in the aftermath of the collapse, Caltrans is forced to invest even more money on the demolition and complete reconstruction of the bridge. In the meantime, commuters can elect to take Highway 78, a detour which adds up to two hours to drivers’ trek through the desert, or brave what remains of the Tex Wash Bridge as it is reduced to single lane two-way traffic.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the I-10 bridge failure is that it serves as a somber reminder of the need for updated infrastructure. According to the most recent data gathered by the Federal Highway Administration, one quarter of the bridges in California are listed as either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete”. As the incident in Desert Center indicates, these ominous ratings are not just for show. With indications of a strong El Nino year ahead, state officials need to ensure that Southern California will be able to withstand the rains, lest the busiest roadways in America come grinding to a halt.