Using ‘The Big One’ to Justify Fixing The US Infrastructure Crisis

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) said this week, according to a Reuters article, that the city must retrofit thousands of older buildings and bolster its water and communications systems to prepare for a possible major earthquake along the San Andreas Fault.

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“We know the ‘Big One’ is coming, it’s a matter of when. If we’re unprepared, the effects could be devastating,” Garcetti told a news conference at City Hall. “These things come with real costs, but we cannot afford not to pay them.”


Cost-controlling technology like this clash detection map can keep infrastructure projects under budget and on-time.

If approved, it would be the first major earthquake-preparation initiative by the country’s second-largest city (sorry, Chicago) since the 1994 Northridge earthquake that killed 16 people and destroyed many structures similar to those now targeted for an upgrade. The cost, of course, won’t be cheap, but much of what’s required would be paid for by private landlords who would be responsible for complying with the new rules.

Pending City Council approval, Garcetti’s measures would target pre-1978 apartment buildings with weak first floors, of the sort constructed over parking garages supported by narrow columns or poles. The proposal would require landlords to upgrade them within 5 years at an estimated cost of $5,000 a unit.

Pre-1976 concrete buildings with columns and frame connectors that are brittle and can break during an earthquake would also have to be upgraded within 25 years at an estimated cost of $10 to $15 a square foot.

The proposals also would require an upgrade to the city’s century-old pipes, developing an alternative water supply for firefighting with reclaimed water and seawater, and fortifying the dozens of aqueducts that cross the San Andreas Fault, including an old city water tunnel built of wood. The actual city-owned water and communications infrastructure improvements would be paid for by a combination of public and private sources left to be determined, Garcetti said.

This is not the first time our nation’s aging infrastructure has been brought to the fore in the world of politics, as Congress is still locked in an ideological battle over how to fund billions in necessary road, bridge and railway improvements that have reached what even the most conservative experts would deem critical levels of age and disrepair. The current level of transportation spending infrastructure advocates want lawmakers to maintain is about $50 billion annually and the federal gas tax brings in about only $34 billion a year.

Some might chalk Garcetti’s use of “the big one” as an unnecessary hyperbolic threat to his own City Council that frames himself, the mayor, as the only one concerned about preparedness for the very real threat of a major earthquake coming to a city that sits on the San Andreas fault. One that requires billions in infrastructure upgrades to be safe from. The problem with that is that the pipes below Los Angeles didn’t become woefully outdated overnight. The fact that a wooden tunnel still supplies a major city with a history of earthquakes is a major indictment of the lack of foresight by previous mayors, city councils and even state governors and legislators charged with maintaining the city’s assets. And Los Angeles’ needs have not sprung up in a vacuum.

The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE), in its annual Infrastructure Report Card, gave the US a D+, saying we need to invest some $3.6 trillion by 2020 to upgrade our infrastructure. The question before the new republican-led Congress that will take over in January is how to fund those trillions of necessary improvements. The technology exists for municipalities, states and even federal government agencies to track and manage expenditures just as private developers do on their own projects, so cost containment, while necessary, should not be used as an excuse for inaction. Whether the necessary money comes from an increase in the gas tax, new revenue from drilling on public lands, or a formula that hasn’t even been brought up yet, the time for putting off a decision until next year has ended.

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