Pipes under the road

Bad culvert.jpg

As Congress and the White House go back and forth (or nowhere) on infrastructure spending, our attention goes mostly to things that we can see: highways, bridges, dams and so on.

But there’s also reason to look beneath our feet to the condition of infrastructure down there. By this I mean pipes that deliver stream waters and stormwaters from one side of a road to the other.

There are several reasons to check out the condition of these pipes, which are commonly called culverts.

For one, many of them have been in service long enough to need patching up or replacement lest they crumble or get washed away when the next big storm hits. That’s particularly worrisome when it comes to culverts beneath heavily travelled Interstates where the costs of repair and interrupted commercial traffic can run many hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For another, the frequency and magnitude of hard storms is rising, particularly in the Northeast. That means that the 18-inch culvert that worked perfectly well 30 years ago might not be big enough to handle the next big rain today.

Finally, most of these pipes – there are literally millions of them – were installed long before our environmental sensitivities got us worrying about the impact of culvert design on the health of streams and the animals that live in them. (The accompanying image is a clear example; no fish or turtle is going to make it through that pipe !)

In short, there’s more to these lowly pipes than you might think, and that helps explain why you’re beginning to seeing more headlines about them.

Headlines such as:

The Economic Costs of Culvert Failures , a report that documents how the economic disruption from a culvert failure, including rerouted commercial traffic, can exceed the cost of actual culvert infrastructure damage.

Swanzey brook restoration project aids fish habitat, helps to mitigate flooding, a report in The Keene (NH) Sentinel about a culvert conversion project that involved a collaboration of different groups

Culvert Crisis in Berrien County, A news article about a culvert replacement project that was published in The Herald-Palladium of St. Joseph, Missouri |

 Repairing New Hampshire’s at-risk culverts, a report on the subject on New Hampshire Public Radio

So, when and if Congress and the administration get down to serious talks about spending on infrastructure, look not only to how much money will be set aside for fixing roads, treatment plants, dams and bridges. Look also to how much goes into fixing and upgrading those pipes the run beneath roads.