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Infrastructure Slides Toward Failing Grade

Wed September 24, 2003 - Northeast Edition
CEG



The condition of our nation’s roads, bridges, drinking water systems and other public works have shown little improvement since they were graded an overall D+ in 2001, with some areas sliding toward failing grades, concluded the “2003 Progress Report for America’s Infrastructure” released recently by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)

The report examining trends and assessing the progress and decline of America’s infrastructure — roads, bridges, mass transit, aviation, schools, drinking water, wastewater, dams, solid waste, hazardous waste, navigable waterways and energy — was prepared by a panel of 20 eminent civil engineers with expertise in a range of practice specialties.

In 2001, ASCE engineers released the Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, grading the same 12 infrastructure categories at a discouraging D+ overall and estimating the need for a $1.3-trillion investment to bring conditions to acceptable levels.

“Time is working against our nation’s infrastructure,” said Thomas L. Jackson, ASCE president. “Since we graded the infrastructure in 2001, our roads are more congested than ever. The number of unsafe and hazardous dams has increased and our schools are unable to accommodate the mandated reductions in class size.”

Among the trends working against efforts to raise conditions to acceptable levels for the world’s leading industrialized nation are state and local budget crises and federal programs that either fall short of meeting the demands for infrastructure maintenance or will soon expire.

In addition, problems that contributed to the overburdened infrastructure remain, including population growth, voter opposition to infrastructure projects and the continuing deterioration of an aging system. Furthermore, the threat of possible terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure has diverted maintenance and growth funding to implement infrastructure security measures. With a federal deficit of $450 billion, resources for infrastructure are growing scarce.

Yet the need for infrastructure investment has never been higher.

None of the 12 categories evaluated in 2001 demonstrated any significant growth or improvement. Conditions for roads, transit, energy, drinking water, waste water, dams and navigable waterways continue to decline. There was no progress in the condition of bridges, aviation, schools, solid waste and hazardous waste.

The country’s growing, sprawling population continues to overburden transportation, water and energy systems that reached capacity long ago. Two years after the nation’s energy infrastructure received a D+, the widespread failure of the electrical grid in the Northeast and Midwest this August left tens of millions in the dark, and brought other infrastructure systems to a grinding halt.

New York City’s mass transit was stopped in its tracks leaving millions of commuters stranded. Cleveland’s water treatment facilities failed, leaving citizens wondering how they were to boil water without electricity.

“While millions of Americans struggled to live without electricity for three days, millions more are still in the dark about the shaky state of our nation’s infrastructure. Our transportation, water and energy systems haven’t been maintained let alone updated, to supply our ever-increasing demands,” said Jackson.

Another factor in the dismal forecast is that citizens are failing to enact measures that invest in the future of their communities, even as federal, state and local funding for infrastructure improvement is in danger of drying up.

In Las Vegas, where the number of congested freeways grew from 5 percent to 55 percent over the past 20 years, voters recently approved a tax plan to fund local transportation projects, while in Northern Virginia — where traffic congestion is among the worst in the country — voters failed to pass a sales tax proposal last fall that would have raised billions for its overburdened road and transit system.

However, roads, bridges and transit systems in all states are now in jeopardy.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) is set to expire Sept. 30, leaving our nation without a coordinated directive for improving the nation’s transportation system.

“TEA-21 reauthorization is critical in order to expand infrastructure investment, enhance infrastructure delivery, and maximize infrastructure effectiveness,” Jackson said. “ASCE also encourages Congress to close the shortfall in transportation investment by increasing the user fee on gasoline by six cents. Studies repeatedly show voters support an increase in user fees as long as it goes directly toward improving infrastructure.”

While the increased security of our critical infrastructure means many more people now recognize the importance of smoothly operating energy, transportation and water systems to our national security and standard of living, officials are frequently forced to choose between installing costly security measures and making long-delayed improvements.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn recently proposed a $9-billion renovation plan for Los Angeles International Airport that proposes decreasing the number of gates from 163 to 153 to enhance security. This allows for no appreciable increase in airfield capacity. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forecasts a resurgence in air travel over the next decade and estimated that a minimum of $2 billion a year is needed to meet demands in addition to the $40-billion authorized through the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21).

“Americans’ concerns about security threats are real, but so are the threats posed by crumbling infrastructure,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t matter if the dam fails because cracks have never been repaired or if it fails at the hand of a terrorist. The towns below the dam will be devastated.”

In 2001, the estimated cost for infrastructure renewal was $1.3 trillion over a five-year period. Today, that cost has risen to $1.6 trillion over a five-year period. While solutions to repair our crumbling infrastructure can be addressed through a renewed partnership between citizens, the private sector and local, state and federal governments, reauthorization of TEA-21 and passage of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Dam Rehabilitation Safety and Security Act, can provide critical funding to repair our transportation, water and dam infrastructure.

The forecast for the trends detailed in the “2003 Progress Report” was based on condition and performance of each infrastructure category as reported by federal sources, capacity of infrastructure versus need, and current and pending investment of state, local and federal funding for infrastructure versus need.

For more information, including local infrastructure conditions and state infrastructure statistics, visit www.asce.org/reportcard.