The American Society of Civil Engineers released its Infrastructure Report Card, giving America’s infrastructure a dismal grade of C-, on March 3. The report helped to galvanize interest in the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure bill, which is being debated in Congress right now, with a recently concluded meeting in the Oval Office between President Biden and congressional leaders.
As we and others have noted, one of the sticking points is what counts as “infrastructure.” The Biden administration is trying to use broad public and bipartisan support for infrastructure to include items like health care that are not traditionally thought of as infrastructure. Republicans also refuse to raise taxes substantially to pay for the Biden proposals.
As if on cue, news came May 8 of a hack by cyber criminals of the Colonial Pipeline, which carries 45 percent of the Northeast’s oil and gas supplies, 2.5 million gallons a day. The ransomware attack only targeted information systems, not operational controls, according to the pipeline’s operator, but it took the pipeline temporarily offline as a precaution while it scrubbed its files. At this writing, the pipeline is back online, although experts said supply chain disruptions could continue for several days. The vulnerability of pipelines, the electric grid and other key parts of infrastructure to cyberattack has long been pointed out by experts.
Now comes news of a temporary shutdown of the Mississippi River near Memphis because of a major crack in a beam in the Hernando de Soto Bridge carrying I-40 over the river. Tennessee transportation officials said the bridge, completed in 1973, could be closed for months. It’s unclear at this writing how long the river will be closed to traffic. According to information available at press time, there were 47 vessels with 771 barges being delayed. While those 771 barges carry a mix of goods and commodities, many of them are filled with grain. At-risk bridges like this make up some of the many choke points, along with locks and dams in need of repair, that have the potential to disrupt vulnerable but vital barge traffic.
Both these incidents, as well as the grounding earlier this year of a single huge containership in the Suez Canal, highlight the interconnectedness of all infrastructure issues. Strengthening the cybersecurity of pipelines and other vital infrastructure certainly comes under the traditional heading of infrastructure, as does stepped-up bridge inspections.
We hope these events focus the attention of the White House and congressional leaders on the necessity of quickly reaching a bipartisan agreement on a targeted pure infrastructure bill, without add-ons or burdensome payment schemes. Urgent infrastructure needs should not be held hostage to unrelated concerns. In the meantime, we urge that all available resources be focused on repairing the I-40 bridge quickly and reopening the Mississippi River to barge traffic as soon as is consistent with safety.