TIME cities

Detroit Pedestrian Bridge Collapses Across Major Highway

The Cathedral Road pedestrian bridge lies collapsed on the south M-39 highway after a truck hit it on Sept. 26, 2014, in Detroit.
The Cathedral Road pedestrian bridge lies collapsed on the south M-39 highway after a truck hit it on Sept. 26, 2014, in Detroit. Robert Allen—AP

Lions quarterback Matt Stafford was on the scene, mingling with others

Updated at 10:30 a.m.

A pedestrian bridge spanning a major freeway in Detroit collapsed Friday morning after it was struck by the bucket of a truck, killing the driver and causing a substantial traffic buildup.

The collapsed bridge on Joy Road spanning the Southfield freeway blocked traffic in both directions. No further injuries have been reported stemming from the incident.

Detroit Lions Quarterback Matthew Stafford was among the last drivers to pass under the bridge before it crashed to the ground. He was seen mingling with other onlookers amid the wreckage.

A spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, Diane Cross, told CBS Local news “it’s an older bridge” but The Detroit Free Press reports the bridge passed inspection just last May.

[CBS Local]

TIME Obama

Obama Threatens to Go It Alone if Congress Doesn’t Help Fix Highways

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the economy in Georgetown Waterfront Park on July 1, 2014 in Washington. Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

Obama threatens to continue acting without Congress if they don't fix the Highway Trust

President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday was intended to call Congress to action on replenishing a fund for state and federal highway projects. Instead, it turned into a political rant against House Republicans, with Obama saying he’ll proceed without Congress’ help if need be.

The Highway Trust Fund is due to run out in 58 days, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, putting 877,000 jobs and $28 billion in U.S. exports at risk. The fund is rapidly depleting due to declining gas tax revenues, a problem Obama wants to fix by eliminating corporate tax breaks. House Republicans, however, have balked at his plan.

“House Republicans have refused to act on this idea,” said Obama. “I haven’t heard a good reason why they haven’t acted, it’s not like they’ve been busy with other stuff.

“No, seriously. They’re not doing anything. Why don’t they do this?,” Obama added, before arguing that the U.S. spends a smaller portion of its economy on infrastructure than “just about every other advanced country.”

House Republicans, meanwhile, want to keep the highway fund rolling by ending Saturday U.S. Postal Service deliveries or enacting more stringent state online sales taxes. But in Tuesday’s speech, Obama was clearly frustrated by Congress’ inaction and with the increasing partisanship of the issue — House Republicans last month said they plan to sue Obama for what they argue has been the President’s abuse of executive actions, which allow the executive branch to take certain actions without approval from the legislature.

“It’s not crazy; it’s not socialism. It’s not the imperial presidency. No laws are broken, it’s just building roads and bridges like we’ve been doing,” the President said, adding that if House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and his party won’t cooperate, he will continue to act independently.

“Middle class families can’t wait for a Republican Congress to do stuff,” Obama said. “So sue me. As long as they’re doing nothing, I’m not going to apologize for trying to do something.”

MONEY The Economy

Fix Roads and Bridges — Just Don’t Hike Gas Taxes to Do it

Closed-up cracked asphalt after earthquake.
Yiannis Papadimitriou—Shutterstock

Raising the federal gasoline tax targets the groups that contribute most to wear and tear on America's crumbling roads. Yet there are less regressive ways to address the country's infrastructure needs.

Who should pay to repair and improve the nation’s transportation system?

Someone has to. About 10% of the nation’s approximately 600,000 bridges are structurally unsound. Another 14% are antiquated. Tunnels, highways and mass-transit systems also cry out for improvements.

Yet the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is supposed to pay for most of this, is shaky. It has needed infusions from general revenues a few times in the past six years, and will run out of money this year unless Congress gives it a new allocation.

So who will be stuck with the bill?

• Taxpayers at large? This would come through the federal income tax.
• Trucking companies that put extra wear and tear on roads? That might be done by raising tolls on federal highways.
• People who drive a lot? This would involve raising the gasoline tax, as proposed this week by a couple of Senators.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) want to raise the federal gasoline tax to 30.4 cents a gallon over two years, from 18.4 cents a gallon at present.

Perhaps mindful of the Tea Party’s growing power, the senators say their plan won’t necessarily raise the total tax burden on Americans. To offset the gas-tax increase, they say, Congress could extend certain tax breaks that have expired or are scheduled to expire.

As one example, they mentioned the deduction for teachers who spend money on classroom supplies. Another example was the federal deduction for taxes paid to states. These deductions may be good or bad, but none of them offer much comfort to people who use a lot of gasoline.

The federal gasoline tax is only part of the picture. When I fill the tank of my wife’s Subaru in the Boston suburbs, I pay about $55. The gasoline itself costs me roughly $48, Massachusetts takes $4 and Uncle Sam takes $3.

If I lived in California I would be paying about $11 in combined state and federal tax for the same tank of gas. It would be about $10 in Connecticut or Hawaii.

Taxes on specific goods and services, such as gasoline or cigarettes, have two main purposes — to raise revenue and to discourage the use of the item in question. Proponents of higher gas taxes often point to the health effects of air pollution and a desire to encourage mass transit.

As a clean-air proponent, I’m tempted to endorse a higher gasoline tax. But it’s a regressive tax, hitting hardest those people who – often by necessity, not choice – have to commute a long distance to work.

It is more logical to have funds for transportation infrastructure taken from general revenue. That way the benefits of each item — defense, Social Security, Medicare, bridge repair, highway construction, and so on — can be weighed each another, and we can decide how much of each we can afford.

John Dorfman is chairman of Thunderstorm Capital LLC, an investment management firm in Boston.

TIME White House

Obama Wants Less Red Tape for Infrastructure Projects

President Barack Obama is expected to use a speech at New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge on Wednesday to unveil proposals that would accelerate the often painfully slow federal reviews of new major projects and also call on Congress to pass a new transportation-spending bill

President Barack Obama will use a speech at New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge on Wednesday to highlight his Administration’s efforts to cut red tape in an effort to speed up federal infrastructure projects, while calling on Congress to act swiftly to pass a new transportation-spending bill.

According to a White House official, Obama will announce proposals to streamline the sometimes jumbled review process for major infrastructure development. Under the Administration plan, federal agency reviews of new projects would be conducted simultaneously as opposed to sequentially, saving much time, while a lead agency would be selected for each project to manage the overall review process.

“The new, government-wide plan will build on efforts the Administration has taken over the past three years to cut through red tape and expedite permitting decisions, while protecting our communities and the environment,” the official said. Obama’s focus on streamlining bureaucracy comes after repeated delays of his Administration’s review of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, with a decision now unlikely before November’s midterm elections.

Obama will also highlight the need for Congress to pass a new transportation bill this summer, or jeopardize “112,000 ongoing highway and 5,600 transit projects, as well as nearly 700,000 jobs.”

A bill to fund federal transportation projects is working its way through the Senate, though Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters Monday that it does not provide enough funding. Obama has proposed a $302 billion funding bill. According to the White House official, Obama will blast House Republicans for cuts to transportation spending in their own proposals, which include an 83% cut to a grant program created by the 2009 stimulus bill, and limits on new bus-and-rail funding.

TIME Chile

Wildfires Rage in Chile

At least 16 people are dead from wildfires burning around the coastal town of Valparaiso, Chile.

Strong winds have fanned the flames, making it difficult for firefighters to stop the blaze from spreading to over 2,000 acres of steep terrain. Homes are mostly wood, often built on hillsides with narrow access roads and no fire hydrants.

The fires have so far destroyed roughly 2,000 homes, and displaced at least 10,000 people. Until the burning is controlled, local officials expect those numbers will continue to rise.

To curb looting, the Chilean government has called in police from all over the country. Officials are also drawing up a plan to evacuate a nearby prison that is in danger of being swallowed by the flames.

TIME Government

Wrecking Balls Needed! Cities Can’t Tear Down Blighted Homes Fast Enough

Detroit Struggles To Re-Build A Bankrupt City Amidst Poverty And Blight
Lawrence Payne walks past two abandoned houses on September 4, 2013 in the Six Mile Gratiot neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

Around the country, insufficient funding and epic amounts of red tape are among the hurdles holding American cities back in the quest to demolish tens of thousands of vacant buildings.

Over the weekend, a Philadelphia Inquirer story explored a tough situation in Philly: Authorities have labeled nearly 600 homes as “imminently dangerous” and in need of being torn down, and yet the city does not have enough money in the budget to handle the job. Normally, the cost of razing a dangerous building is the responsibility of the property owner, but in many cases these dilapidated, usually vacant homes have no owners.

By comparison to Detroit, however, Philadelphia’s problems seem minor. The Detroit Free Press recently rehashed some of the monumental challenges facing the city, which has established a goal of tearing down some 80,000 blighted homes over the course of six years. Among the hurdles that must be surmounted to reach the goal is the presence of squatters in a sizable percentage of these homes, as well as the difficulty of finding and transporting the staggering amount of dirt that will be necessary to fill the holes left once the homes and their basements are removed.

Then there’s arguably the most difficult, aggravating challenge of all: paperwork. “Titles must be cleared, utilities shut off, notifications sent, asbestos removed,” the Free Press explained. “Often it can take months to certify that a structure is ready for demolition before the city can issue a permit to a demolition contractor.”

The headaches being encountered by Detroit’s enormous initiative will only seem to grow as the city picks up the pace of demolition. Crews are currently working at a rate of roughly 100 tear-downs per week. By next year, the plan calls for 400 to 500 homes in the city to be razed and removed each and every week.

(MORE: Guess Where the Middle Class Can’t Afford to Live Now? Yep, Detroit)

A New York Times story published last fall explored the idea that cities such as Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, and St. Louis are deciding in favor of demolition not simply because buildings are dangerous and uninhabitable, but sometimes because after seeing the local population decrease year after year, the buildings now have little use. Here’s how one expert quoted by the Times explained the transformation in urban planners’ decision making:

“In the past, cities would look at buildings individually, determine there was a problem, tear them down and then quickly find another use for the land,” said Justin B. Hollander, an urban planning professor at Tufts University. “Now they’re looking at the whole DNA of the city and saying, ‘There are just too many structures for the population we have.’”

The Times reported that Cleveland had spent $50 million over the previous six years on the demolition of houses. Yet it seems as if the work has barely begun. A Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial recently referenced an estimate indicating that 12,000 to 15,000 “eyesores (and potential crime scenes)” in the area should be razed. Because studies have shown that “strategic demolition of blighted structures stabilized and increased real estate values, decreased foreclosure rates and lessened tax delinquencies,” the editorial calls for tens of millions of more dollars to be used to knock down homes as soon as possible.

TIME Infrastructure

Rep. Charles Rangel: For Too Long, Congress Has Ignored Infrastructure

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), speaks to the media near the smoking site of an explosion in East Harlem on March 13, 2014 in New York City.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), speaks to the media near the smoking site of an explosion in East Harlem on March 13, 2014 in New York City. John Moore—Getty Images

In the wake of the explosion and building collapse in East Harlem that killed at least eight people, apparently caused by a gas leak, Rep. Charles Rangel says the country's infrastructure must be shored up to meet the demands of the 21st century

When I first described as “our community’s 9/11” what we now know was a gas explosion, I was referring to the chaos and shock that resulted from the tragic incident that occurred in the heart of my beloved congressional district in East Harlem on Wednesday morning. While it was neither a terrorist attack nor comparable to 9/11 in scope and scale, the suffering from loss or injuries of loved ones has been as painful and horrific to the entire community where I was born and lived all my life. Still, I could not be more proud of the first responders and the Red Cross, as well as Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who have provided immediate assistance to my constituents for which I am grateful.

We have to wait for the findings from the National Transportation Safety Board team’s investigation, but it is apparent that the catastrophic gas explosion has been caused by poor and outdated infrastructure. According to the Center for an Urban Future’s recently released report, New York City’s gas mains are on average 56 years old, with most of them made of materials that are highly leak-prone. Altogether, the City needs almost $47 billion worth of infrastructure upgrades by 2020. It is costly, but we will pay a higher and terrible price if we ignore it.

In fact, our nation’s overall infrastructure is in dire condition. The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, gave a near-failing grade of D+ based on physical condition and needed investments for improvement. For too long, Congress has ignored the urgent need to provide funding that directly impacts the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Before any other community across the country suffers great destruction, we must commit to shoring up our 20th century infrastructure that simply cannot keep up with the demands of the 21st century.

This is why we should support President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget request, which lays out a long-term plan that expands economic growth, makes critical investments in our future, and reduces the deficit. The President’s 10-year request includes proposals aimed at enhancing the role of private capital in U.S. infrastructure investment as a vital additive to the traditional roles of federal, state, and local governments. It also calls for the creation of an independent government entity, such as the National Infrastructure Bank or similar financing vehicle, in addition to the enactment of the America Fast Forward Bonds program and other tax incentives to attract new sources of capital that can help buttress our nation’s infrastructure.

Today, New Orleans stands strong with upgraded levees. These are nothing like the flawed structures that failed in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, killing more than 1,800 people and causing nearly $125 billion in damage. The new system will greatly reduce flooding, even in 500-year storms, because it was rebuilt with enhanced engineering and durable construction materials to provide state-of-the-art protection to the residents of the Gulf Coast who have courageously overcome the devastation and destruction caused by the deadly hurricane.

I am fortunate to represent a community where people have offered their homes, hands, and prayers to help their neighbors in any way that they can. Our community is resilient and will recover from the tragedy stronger and as united as ever, just as our country did after 9/11. Congress must subsequently fulfill its obligation to the American taxpayers to ensure public safety. While we cannot stop Mother Nature from wreaking havoc in our communities, lawmakers must do what we can to invest in sustainable infrastructure that will insure against preventable harm.

Charles B. Rangel is a 22nd-term Congressman representing New York’s thirteenth congressional district, which includes Upper Manhattan and parts of the Bronx.

TIME Infrastructure

New York City Is Crumbling

Firefighters respond to an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York, March 12, 2014.
Firefighters respond to an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York, March 12, 2014. John Minchillo—AP

While tragedies are rare, the city's aging infrastructure is responsible for countless disruptions and malfunctions. Billions will need to be spent—but the price of inaction is worse.

It is still unclear what caused Wednesday’s tragic explosion in East Harlem. Firemen and forensic inspectors are still combing through the debris. But many signs point to a 127-year-old, cast-iron gas line that served the collapsed buildings.

Sadly, these old gas lines are not uncommon in New York City. The city’s 6,362 miles of gas mains are 56 years old on average and 53 percent are made of unprotected steel or cast iron, corrosive and leak-prone materials. In 2012, this aging network of gas mains and service lines was responsible for nearly 6,000 gas leaks across the city.

In the wake of Wednesday’s deadly blast, Mayor Bill de Blasio and other New York officials — including those from Con Edison, the utility company that provides natural gas to Manhattan, the Bronx and sections of Queens — will need to expedite the repair and replacement of the aging gas distribution system and prevent similar disasters in the future. Their work cannot end with the gas lines, however. Throughout the city, utility and transportation infrastructure is decaying and in need of immediate attention.

A report published on Monday by the Center for an Urban Future found a significant portion of New York City’s bridges, water mains, sewer pipes, school buildings, and other essential infrastructure is more than 50 years old and in need of repair. Throughout the city, 1,000 miles of water mains, 170 school buildings and 165 bridges were constructed over a century ago. The city’s public hospital buildings are 57 years old, on average, and 531 public housing towers were built prior to 1950.

While tragedies are rare, this aging infrastructure is responsible for countless disruptions and malfunctions.

In 2013, there were 403 water main breaks. Although most are minor, serious ruptures are an annual occurrence. Already this year, a major water main break on 13th Street in Manhattan flooded the street and nearby subways. In 2013, a similar incident paralyzed the subways at 23rd Street in south Midtown.

In 2012, 162 bridges across the city — or 11 percent of the total — were structurally deficient. More problematic, 47 of these were deemed “fracture critical,” an engineering term for bridges that have little structural redundancy, making them prone to failure and collapse.

Thirty seven percent of all subway signals exceed their 50-year useful life, slowing the movement of trains and forcing maintenance workers to build their own replacement parts because they are no longer privately manufactured. Approximately 4,000 miles of sewer pipe across the city are made of vitreous clay, a material susceptible to cracking and blockage. Meanwhile, 1,500 of the 2,600 public housing buildings do not comply with local standards for exterior and façade conditions.

Restoring and modernizing these deteriorating assets will not be easy, or cheap. We estimate that $47 billion is needed over the next four to five years simply to bring the city’s aging infrastructure to a state of good repair. However, based on accumulated funding gaps and shortfalls in upcoming capital plans, unmet needs will reach $34.2 billion.

To address this funding gap, the city will need additional assistance from the federal government, which has a huge stake in the economic competitiveness of New York and other urban centers. Congress should support President Obama’s recent proposal to devote $300 billion to preserving and modernizing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

State and local officials must also take immediate action to raise revenues for infrastructure projects and reduce building costs, so that limited resources go farther. For instance, Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo should identify new dedicated revenue streams to pay for infrastructure projects. This might include tolls on the East River bridges, a stormwater management fee, pay-as-you-throw trash collection and parking permits. New York City can also streamline its procurement laws and procedures, and improve its asset management practices by rigorously inspecting and inventorying existing assets, developing an explicit rubric for allocating capital dollars and aligning infrastructure planning with demographic shifts and economic development.

Mayor de Blasio should also focus a larger share of the capital spending on repairing and modernizing existing infrastructure assets. While former mayor Michael Bloomberg deserves significant credit for constructing several new schools and parks and completing major projects like the third water tunnel, his administration’s generous capital budgets often placed more emphasis on new construction than on needed repairs. Conditions of local roads declined over the course of his administration, as did the replacement rate of water and sewer mains.

As the recent tragedy in Harlem illustrates, the consequences of failing to maintain and repair existing infrastructure can be dramatic. Without immediate, sustained and generous investment in its core infrastructure, New York’s health, safety and quality of life will quickly diminish.

Adam Forman is research associate at the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City based think tank. He is also author of “Caution Ahead,” a report published on Tuesday by the Center about New York’s infrastructure vulnerabilities.

TIME Infrastructure

Harlem Building Collapse Highlights America’s Dangerously Old Gas Infrastructure

Firefighters respond to an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in East Harlem.
Firefighters respond to an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in East Harlem. John Minchillo—AP

The deadly explosion started with a leak in a gas pipe, one part of the nation's enormous and aging gas system

A gas leak in New York City morphed into a deadly explosion Wednesday, claiming at least three lives and destroying two buildings while injuring dozens of other residents. How old the pipe was that runs beneath that part of an old neighborhood—and exactly how the leak started—remain unclear. Some academics, however, say it’s clear that much of America’s aging gas infrastructure needs to be replaced, regardless of what happened in Harlem.

American’s use of natural gas goes back to the early 1900s, and some of the pipes funneling gas beneath city streets today go back that long, too. More than 6,000 miles of pipe run through New York’s five boroughs, carrying the natural gas that in turn provides 65% of the heat used by city residents. And the average age of that pipe, according to a report from the Center for an Urban Future, is 56 years old, much of it made of old materials that are more prone to leaks.

“Most of those leaks are small,” says Rob Jackson, a professor at Duke University and Stanford who has been trawling Northeastern cities for natural gas leaks. “But at some point, every leak is 100% natural gas. So potentially, every leak is dangerous.”

In the Roaring Twenties, men laying pipe were likely to be making paths for cast iron or wrought iron—like the faulty 83-year-old pipe that led to an explosion in Allentown, Pa., three years ago that killed five. By the mid-century, those men were laying steel, and that eventually gave way to the more advanced plastic pipe used today. “The system has infrastructure that was in its time state-of-the-art,” says Frank O’Sullivan, a director of research and analysis at MIT. “But frankly, is no longer.” Cast iron pipes are more brittle, producing potential for cracking to occur. Early steel pipes, meanwhile, are more prone to corrosion. About half the pipeline in New York is cast iron or unprotected steel.

“These things weren’t designed to last 100 years,” Jackson says.

Earlier this year, the journal of Environmental Science and Technology released a study on gas leaks in Washington, D.C., led by Jackson. His team drove over every bit of asphalt in the city with tubes sucking in air outside the vehicle. They found nearly 6,000 leaks over 1,500 miles of road, including a dozen potentially explosive pockets gathered in manholes—most of which the city still hadn’t addressed six months after he reported them in February 2013. Pockets of natural gas generally need an enclosed space in which to build before they become explosive, which happens when the methane makes up about 5% of the air mixture. Jackson notes in the report that despite advances, incidents involving natural gas pipelines still lead to an average of 17 deaths and $133 million in property damage each year.

Though most enforcement happens at the state level, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration oversees the pipelines through which gas travels around the U.S. In 2011, following the Allentown explosion, Department officials issued a “call to action,” asking pipeline operators “to accelerate the repair, rehabilitation, and replacement of the highest-risk pipeline infrastructure,” such as aging cast and wrought iron pipe.

But that is a tall order with complicated economics. The enormous network of pipeline stretching across the U.S., O’Sullivan says, is so vast that at any given moment it contains enough gas for the entire U.S. population for three days. To get to American homes, natural gas must first be imported or taken out of the ground. The raw gas is gathered through pipelines, which take the raw material to processing centers where it is homogenized. It then flows through the equivalent of interstates toward so-called “city gates,” the points where the gas enters a local distribution system of smaller pipes—like the one run in New York City by Con Edison, which got a report of a gas leak before the explosion in Harlem.

It might seem like the answer is easy: companies like Con Edison should shell out and replace all the old pipeline. Those companies, though, are beholden to public utility commissions, who can determine how much the companies spend on such things, Jackson says, and public utility commissions often gauge success by providing customers with the smallest bills possible. “If the money were there,” he says, “the companies would do it very quickly,” and that may be where some more creative financing on the federal level could come in.

The notion of a natural gas system without any leaks is laughable to experts. And Jackson emphasizes that his research in cities like Washington, D.C. and Boston, is meant to help officials prioritize high-risk neighborhoods, which might be the older parts of the old towns in the Northeast. Though attempting to stop every leak isn’t helpful, he says, if companies address the real problem areas, it could mean saved lives and less greenhouse emissions in the atmosphere.

New York City politicians are already taking up the call. “With two reported deaths and over a dozen injuries, the human cost of inaction is clear,” City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “If the necessary funding for these repairs and improvements is not granted by the federal and state governments, tragic occurrences such as today’s may become more common in our city.”

TIME Infrastructure

Obama To Propose $302 Billion Highway Repair Program

Aerial Views Of Las Vegas
U.S. Route 95 in Las Vegas, Nevada Ethan Miller—Getty Images

The White House said President Obama is set to unveil a $302 proposal to repair and rebuild roads, bridges and transit systems across the U.S., including funding from $150 billion in revenue raised through what the administration is calling "pro-growth business tax reform"

President Obama will propose a four-year, $302 billion transportation program on Wednesday to repair and rebuild roads, bridges and transit systems, the White House said.

The program would include funding from $150 billion in revenue raised through “pro-growth business tax reform”, said the White House. The initial announcement said this would include “closing unfair tax loopholes, lowering tax rates, and making the system more fair,” though it included few specific details.

Infrastructure in the United States has deteriorated in recent years, and the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s roads, ports, bridges and other infrastructure an overall grade of D+ last year in its annual rating program. The Associated Press found last year that 65,605 bridges in the federal National Bridge Inventory were classified as “structurally deficient.”

The Obama administration called for a $77 billion transportation program last year as part of its 2013 budget proposal and has proposed other measures in the past, but the efforts have stalled in Congress.

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