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ASCE releases 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure to correspond with the debate in Congress over the amount of infrastructure spending included in an economic stimulus bill. The Report Card assigns a cumulative grade of D to the nation’s infrastructure and notes a five-year investment need of $2.2 trillion from all levels of government and the private sector. According to ASCE, since its 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."

ASCE’s 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure assesses the condition of and need for investment in 15 infrastructure categories, including, for the first time, levees. The report notes some improvement in energy since 2005; unchanged conditions for bridges, dams, drinking water, hazardous waste, inland waterways, public parks and recreation, rail, schools, solid waste, and wastewater; and worse conditions in aviation, roads, and transit. Security, a category that was added to the Report Card in 2005, and which received an incomplete grade, was removed from the list of assessed categories and added into the methodology used to assess each individual category.

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. The 2009 Report Card assigns the following grades (2005 grades in parentheses):

  • Aviation: D (D+)
  • Bridges: C (C)
  • Dams: D (D)
  • Drinking water: D- (D-)
  • Energy: D+ (D)
  • Hazardous waste: D (D)
  • Inland waterways: D- (D-)
  • Levees: D- (not evaluated in 2005)
  • Public parks and recreation: C- (C-)
  • Rail: C- (C-)
  • Roads: D- (D)
  • Schools: D (D)
  • Solid waste: C+ (C+)
  • Transit: D (D+)
  • Wastewater: D- (D-)

According to the ASCE, 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, ASCE reported that 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, it said, current annual spending is less than half of what is needed 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 largely because 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 because per-capita generation has remained relatively constant during 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.

The condition of bridges have not shown significant improvement or elevated level of decline, ASCE said, but more than one in four (26 percent) of the nation’s bridges remain either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Current investment in bridge construction and maintenance, $10.5 billion, is less than the estimated $17 billion needed annually to improve current bridge conditions.

ASCE said that public parks and recreation and rail have not shown 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, the association said. 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.

The number of deficient dams has increased to more than 4,000, including 1,819 high hazard potential dams. And, during the last six years, for every deficient, high hazard potential dam repaired, nearly two more were declared deficient.

Redevelopment of brownfields sites during the last 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, ASCE said. 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 grade of D-, the condition of the nation’s levees, and their impact on public health, safety, and welfare, requires significant investment and leadership, ASCE said. 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 ASCE said that 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+. Progress has been made in grid reinforcement since 2005, ASCE said, and substantial investment in generation, transmission, and distribution is expected during 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 Report Card also presents the following five key solutions for raising the nation’s infrastructure GPA:

  • increase federal leadership in infrastructure;
  • promote sustainability and resilience;
  • develop federal, state, and regional infrastructure plans;
  • address life-cycle costs and ongoing maintenance; and
  • increase and improve 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."

ASCE will release a detailed report March 25, 2009. More information is available online at www.asce.org/reportcard.