New Jersey’s Aging Infrastructure No Match for Superstorm

Upgrade costs for essential infrastructure -- already steep -- could reach astronomical heights

Credit: PSEGpics
Even before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the state, New Jersey faced mind-boggling upgrade costs to modernize its aging infrastructure: from drinking water facilities, to mass transit, to structurally deficient bridges — among other pressing projects.

In the aftermath of the worst storm ever to hit New Jersey, those challenges have become even more daunting, especially given the dire fiscal straits Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature are expected to once again find themselves in next year.

“The question is how much damage is there to the road infrastructure network and transit infrastructure network?’’ asked Philip Beachem, president of the New Jersey Alliance for Action, a group that typically lobbies for funds to rebuild the state’s transportation infrastructure. “How bad is it?’’

Plenty bad, judging from early assessments.

Bridges washed out at the Jersey Shore; broken natural gas pipelines burst into flame, burning down houses; and malfunctioning wastewater treatment plants spilled raw sewage into waterways when they lost power.

A week after the storm came ashore, officials were still assessing the damage. This includes determining just how badly the state’s public rail transit system fared.

“There are serious power, track, and signal problems along the Northeast corridor,’’ Christie said yesterday at an afternoon press briefing on recovery efforts after the storm. The Northeast corridor — stretching from New York to Trenton — is one of the busiest and most important rail lines in the state.

Most officials said it is still much too early to put a dollar figure on damage caused by the storm, which hit the coastal region especially hard. That poses bigger problems because of the corrosive effect of saltwater on metal, industry experts said.

“When you’re looking at anything metallic, it’s going to corrode. It’s not a matter of if, but when,’’ said Rick Grant, a principal in Russell Corrosion Consultants. “The infrastructure damage is clearly going to run in the billions of dollars.’’

Where the money is going to come from to finance that effort remains unknown. For years, the state has ignored investing in its infrastructure, a failure the American Society of Civil Engineers said in a 2009 study left New Jersey in a sorry state when it comes to maintaining important public services.

That study found that 36 percent of New Jersey’s bridges were structurally deficient; the state had 213 high-hazard dams, meaning a failure could lead to a significant loss of life; and 78 percent of New Jersey’s roads were in either poor or mediocre condition. The state also needed to invest nearly $7 billion over the next two decades to meet its drinking water needs, and another $9 billion upgrading wastewater treatment plants, according to the study.

“The numbers are so big it is going to rely on federal dollars and borrowing,” according to Rich Keevey, a member of a state budget crisis task force and former state budget director, whose report projects that the state will have more than $130 billion in needs over the next decade, including $80 billion in transportation costs and $40 billion for wastewater and drinking water.

One way to address the problem, Grant said, is to determine what parts of the infrastructure can be rehabilitated and what parts need to be replaced. No matter how those decisions play out, because of the sheer magnitude of damage caused by the storm, it is going to take years to address the problems, he said.

How and when New Jersey rebuilds from the storm also is likely to generate a whole lot of debate.

“It gives the state an opportunity to rebuild its infrastructure,’’ said Chris Sturm, senior policy analyst for New Jersey Future, an organization that advocates smart growth. “There is more urgency to rebuilding it better to deal with rising sea levels, extreme storms, and increased flooding.’’

The storm raised important questions that ought to be debated, Sturm said. “Are there some parts too vulnerable and should not be redeveloped. It’s very expensive to rebuild things if it is likely they will be destroyed again,’’ she said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed.

“We must and we will rebuild after Hurricane Sandy,’’ he said. “However we need to do it better, smarter, and in the right places. New Jersey needs to fundamentally change how and where we build along our flood-prone areas.’’