ASCE: Nation's Infrastructure Earns a 'D'

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) on Jan. 28 released its 2009 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, assigning a cumulative grade of D to the nation's infrastructure and noting a five-year investment need of $2.2 trillion from all levels of government and the private sector.

Since ASCE's last assessment in 2005 there has been little change in the condition of the nation's roads, bridges, drinking water systems, and other public works, and the cost of improvement has increased by more than half a trillion dollars.

"Crumbling infrastructure has a direct impact on our personal and economic health, and the nation's infrastructure crisis is endangering our future prosperity," said ASCE president D. Wayne Klotz, P.E., F.ASCE. "Our leaders are looking for solutions to the nation's current economic crisis. Not only could investment in these critical foundations have a positive impact, but if done responsibly, it would also provide tangible benefits to the American people, such as reduced traffic congestion, improved air quality, clean and abundant water supplies, and protection against natural hazards."

As the nation's infrastructure receives focused attention from the White House, Congress and the public, ASCE's 2009 Report Card for America's Infrastructure provides an assessment of the condition and need for investment of 15 infrastructure categories, including, for the first time, levees.

While there has been some improvement in energy since 2005, overall conditions have remained the same for bridges, dams, drinking water, hazardous waste, inland waterways, public parks and recreation, rail, schools, solid waste, and wastewater, and have worsened in aviation, roads, and transit.

Security, a category that was added to the Report Card in 2005 and which received an incomplete grade has been removed from the list of assessed categories and added into the methodology used to assess each individual category. Grades ranged from a high of C+ for solid waste to a low of D- for drinking water, inland waterways, levees, roads, and wastewater.

The Report Card also presents five key solutions for raising the nation's infrastructure GPA. These include:

• Increasing federal leadership in infrastructure,

• Promoting sustainability and resilience,

• Developing federal, state and regional infrastructure plans,

• Addressing life-cycle costs and ongoing maintenance and

• Increasing and improving infrastructure investment from all stakeholders.

"The nation's infrastructure faces some very real problems, problems that pose an equally real threat to our way of life if they are not addressed appropriately," said Andrew Herrmann, P.E., F.ASCE, Report Card for America's Infrastructure Advisory Council Chair. "However, while it may not happen overnight, these problems are solvable if we have the right kind of vision and leadership."

U.S. surface transportation and aviation systems have declined over the past four years, with aviation and transit dropping from D+ to D, and roads dropping from a D to a nearly failing D-. A 3 percent annual growth is expected in air travel, and despite recent successes -- such as the opening of three new major runways -- travelers continue to face increasing delays and inadequate conditions in the nation's airports as a result of the long overdue need to modernize the outdated air traffic control system and the failure to enact a federal aviation program.

On the country's roadways, Americans are spending 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, costing the economy $78.2 billion a year, or $710 per motorist. Additionally, 45 percent of major urban highways are congested, and current annual spending is less than half of the actual need to substantially improve conditions. And, while transit use increased 25 percent from 1995 to 2005, nearly half of American households still do not have access to bus or rail transit. According to the Federal Transit Administration, the cost to improve to good conditions is more than twice the current annual federal capital outlay of $9.8 billion.

Of the infrastructure categories that have seen no real improvement, solid waste remains the highest grade, C+. This is due largely to the fact that more than a third of the 254 million tons of solid waste produced in the United States was recycled or recovered, representing a 7 percent increase since 2000, and that per capita generation has remained relatively constant over the last 20 years. However, the increasing volume of electronic waste and lack of uniform regulations for disposal creates the potential for high levels of hazardous materials and heavy metals in the nation's landfills, which poses a significant threat to public safety.

Showing no significant improvement or elevated level of decline, the nation's bridges were assigned a barely average grade of C. While some progress has been made in recent years, more than one in four (26 percent) of the nation's bridges remain either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. And, current investment in bridge construction and maintenance, $10.5 billion, is less than the $17 billion needed annually to improve current bridge conditions.

Additionally, at a grade of C-, public parks and recreation, as well as rail, have shown no tangible improvement. Despite the $730 billion per year they contribute to the U.S. economy and the nearly 6.5 million jobs they support, parks, beaches, and other recreational facilities continue to be underfunded. There has been record spending at the state and local level, but National Park Service facilities face a $7 billion maintenance backlog.

Rail is also facing a significant need for investment -- more than $200 billion through 2035. Travel in a freight train is three times as fuel efficient as a truck, and travel on passenger rail uses 20 percent less energy per mile than vehicular travel.

While their shared grade of D may not have dropped in the past four years, dams, hazardous waste, and schools all demonstrate a need for immediate attention. As dams age and downstream development increases, the number of deficient dams has risen to more than 4,000, including 1,819 high hazard potential dams. And, over the past six years, for every deficient, high hazard potential dam repaired, nearly two more were declared deficient.

Redevelopment of brownfields sites over the past five years generated an estimated 191,338 new jobs and $408 million annually in extra revenues for localities, but federal funding for "Superfund" cleanup of the nation's worst toxic waste sites continues to decline steadily. In addition, there has been no comprehensive, authoritative nationwide study of the condition of America's school buildings in more than a decade. Currently, the National Education Association's best estimate to bring the nation's schools into good repair is $322 billion.

Debuting on the Report Card at a barely passing grade of D-, the condition of the nation's levees, and their impact on public health, safety and welfare, requires significant investment and leadership. More than 85 percent of the nation's estimated 100,000 miles of levees are locally owned and maintained. The reliability of many of these levees is unknown, and many are more than 50 years old and were originally built to protect crops from flooding. With an increase in development behind these levees, the risk to public health and safety from failure has increased. Rough estimates put the cost of repairing and rehabilitating the nation's levees at more than $100 billion.

Also scoring a grade of D-, the nation's drinking water and wastewater systems and inland waterways face equally difficult problems. Leaking pipes lose an estimated 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water a day, and there is an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion to replace aging facilities that are near the end of their useful life and to comply with existing and future federal water regulations.

Additionally, aging systems discharge billions of gallons of untreated wastewater into U.S. surface waters each year, and an estimated $390 billion must be invested over the next 20 years to update or replace existing systems and build new ones to meet increasing demand.

Finally, while the average tow barge can carry the equivalent of 870 tractor trailer loads, 30 of the 257 locks still in use on the nation's inland waterways were built in the 1800s and another 92 are more than 60 years old. The cost to replace the present system of locks is estimated at more than $125 billion.

The one positive note on the Report Card, energy, rose from a grade of D to D+. This comes from the progress that has been made in grid reinforcement since 2005 and the substantial investment in generation, transmission, and distribution expected over the next two decades. However, as demand continues to increase -- by 25 percent since 1990 -- public and government opposition and difficulty in the permitting processes are restricting much needed modernization, and projected electric utility investment needs could be as much as $1.5 trillion by 2030.

The 2009 Report Card was developed by an advisory council of 28 civil engineers representing each of the infrastructure categories, as well as a broad spectrum of civil engineering disciplines. Each category was evaluated on the basis of capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety and resilience. A detailed report will be released on March 25.

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