More Than Just Power Problems

Last week's blackout in the Northeast gave everybody a quickie lesson in the importance of the electric grid and what happens when it malfunctions.

But the grid is only one of several parts that make up the infrastructure of this country — the foundation that allows it to keep running.

Things like bridges, roads, sewer and water systems, telecommunications, etc. And if you thought the electric grid was in bad shape, what till you get a load of the rest.

Take Atlanta's water system — please! Its pipes tend to rupture on average about once a day. And after a good rain, the city's sewer system is in danger of overflowing and often spills raw waste into the Chattahoochee River.

It's gotten so bad that Shirley Franklin, Atlanta's mayor, is calling herself the "sewer mayor."

"It's a crisis," she said.

‘Seriously Be Concerned’

But Atlanta is not alone.

"We should very seriously be concerned," said William Henry, incoming president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers. "We are getting indicators of failures in all of our infrastructure systems."

The ASCE says a third of the nation's highways are in poor or mediocre condition.

The American Public Works Association rates 30 percent of the nation's bridges "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete."

Some water pipes in big cities like Atlanta are 100 years old and natural gas lines almost as ancient.

"The United States' infrastructure simply isn't up to snuff," said David Schulz of Northwestern University.

Schulz says much of the problem involves funding. Money for maintenance, he says, is increasingly hard to come by.

"It's been squeezed out of the budget, really, across the country for a long time. And we've got a big backlog of investment that we've got to make up," he told ABCNEWS.

Big Backlog of Investment?

It's estimated that it would cost more than $1 trillion over five years to fix everything that needs fixing. Good luck on getting more than $1 trillion from Congress and an administration that wants to cut spending and taxes.

But something clearly has to be done.

Chicago offers another almost preposterous example of the problems facing the country's infrastructure.

Thirty percent of the nation's freight-train traffic must pass through Chicago, and any major delays can have a big, negative impact on the U.S. economy as a whole. Yet the system is dependent on antiquated technology.

There's a small shack along the tracks on the southwest side of the city that houses one worker and a number of long levers. It is this person's job to pull the levers manually when he wants to raise a metal signal flag to oncoming trains, telling them to either stop or go.

Miguel D'Escoto, the city's transportation commissioner, says that kind of thing has got to stop. The system has to be modernized, D'Escoto says. He hopes funds can be raised from the city, state and private companies to fund a $1.5 billion renovation plan that includes automating that little shack on the southwest side.

After all, says D'Escoto, the procedure is the same as the one that was in place in 1870 — when Ulysses S. Grant was president.