The major power outage that struck Tuesday in the nation’s capital, however briefly, exposes wider weaknesses in America’s infrastructure.
The outage, which started shortly before 1 p.m. was "caused by an issue with a transmission line," Pepco, the district’s electric utility, said in a statement.
Among the more than 2,000 customers affected were major government buildings including the White House, State Department and Smithsonian museums. Several stations on the nation’s metro rail system were also forced to resort to backup power, hindering elevator and escalator access for the thousands who rely on the system.
“When the power goes out, you think, ‘oh well, the power goes out.’ But the things that are related to it become quite a few, obviously as we saw today,” said Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives at the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“The inter-relatedness of the system is one of the things that is clearly a tie-in for today to remind people that when something that happens like that in our infrastructure system it does affect other areas,” he added.
Power outages are not uncommon in the nation’s capital, with major weather events regularly causing power service disruptions in parts of D.C.
But beyond Washington's electric grid, roadways and bridges in the district and neighboring communities are in dire need of repair, and in some cases, drastic overhaul.
Of the district’s 252 bridges, 21 are structurally deficient, and 159 are functionally obsolete, according to the latest report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The 2013 report found 95 percent of the district’s major roads are in poor condition, costing motorists an estimated $425 million per year.
That’s only in D.C., but similar trends are apparent across the U.S.
At the Pentagon, Adm. William Gortney, Commander of North American Aerospace Defense, addressed Tuesday’s outage by highlighting the tenuous state of infrastructure across the country.
"What it really goes to is we have a lot of vulnerabilities out there ... it is our reliance on critical infrastructure that our nations need in order to operate," Gortney said. “Those critical infrastructures are fragile. And when I say fragile, it's just because we really don't know the true vulnerabilities,” he said.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have publicly appealed to federal lawmakers to ramp up funding for critical infrastructure programs that would inject much-needed funds into the nation’s aging roadways, railways, waterways, and electric grids.
“Building a world-class transportation system is one of the reasons America became an economic superpower in the first place. But over the past 50 years, as a share of our economy, our investment in transportation has shrunk by 50 percent,” Obama said during a speech in New York last May to draw attention to the issue of infrastructure.
“We shouldn’t watch the top-rated airports and seaports or the fastest rail lines or fastest Internet networks get built somewhere else – they need to be built right here in New York, right here in the United States,” he added.
That’s no small task.
National funding levels need to rise to roughly $3.6 trillion from current projected spending levels of roughly $2 trillion by 2020 just to maintain existing infrastructure, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Of the $1.6 trillion spending gap, more than half – $846 billion – is in surface transportation alone, the association noted.
“We have aging infrastructure. We have, as a nation, been underinvesting in our nation’s infrastructure for quite some time, and as a result we’re going to see more of these types of things occur if we don’t start moving that needle and changing the trend of infrastructure investment,” Pallasch said, referring to Tuesday’s power outage. “We have not spent enough time remembering, if you will, that this is an investment that we’ve made.”
While Washington does have a role to play in remedying the budget shortfalls that further imperil dated infrastructure, state and local governments must also increase their investments alongside private businesses, Pallasch said.
The federal government pays just less than half of capital costs for surface transportation, and state and local governments are responsible for the bulk of costs associated with the electric grid and water infrastructure.
“There is a sharing of the responsibility to address that $1.6 trillion. The federal government clearly needs to step up, and do more,” Pallasch said.
By Michael Hernandez