Underinvestment and sea level rise threaten the state’s infrastructure, but clean energy innovation sparks optimism

PROVIDENCE, RI — Today, the Rhode Island Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released the 2020 Report Card for Rhode Island’s Infrastructure, the section’s first report card, giving seven categories of infrastructure an overall grade of a ‘C-.’ Graded categories include bridges (D-), drinking water (C+), energy (C+), ports (C), rails (B-), roads (D) and wastewater (C).

Rail infrastructure received the highest grade of a B-, serving as a critical link to Rhode island’s ports and ultimately, its offshore wind farm. In recent years, Rhode Island has seen high speed rail, extended commuter service and revitalization of historic freight lines. The state’s rail infrastructure is well positioned to handle increased ridership demand.

“Infrastructure fuels Rhode Island’s economy, but our systems are aging rapidly and require more investment to keep up with future needs,” said Lt. Governor Dan McKee. “As we grapple with the detrimental economic impacts of COVID-19, infrastructure will be at the forefront of our recovery efforts. Although we’ve made progress towards becoming energy-independent and are improving in other areas, we must have collaboration across all levels of government to modernize these structures on which each Rhode Islander depends.”

Another brighter spot in the report was the state’s energy infrastructure, graded at a C+. Recognized as a national leader in renewable energy, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo initiated a statewide goal for renewable energy to provide the entire state’s electricity by 2030. Rhode Island is also home to the country’s first operational offshore wind farm. Residents have also adopted a cleaner energy mindset, as Rhode Island’s 174 BTU consumption per capita ranks lowest in energy use per person in the country. However, 44% of Rhode Island’s gas lines are over 50 years old and require maintenance and upgrades. Regional grid operator ISO-NE projects $327 million is needed to address all transmission maintenance and upgrades needed in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts.

“Rhode Island is one of the oldest states in the nation and, as a result, our infrastructure faces many challenges,” said Nazifa Sarawat, E.I.T., Chair, 2020 Report Card for Rhode Island’s Infrastructure. “Severe weather events and our location as a coastal state only add to the burden. If we want to use taxpayer funds efficiently and proactively ensure public safety, we must ensure that our systems are properly maintained and prepared for imminent sea level rise, harsh winters and increasingly severe storms.”

Bridges and roads received the lowest grades in the report, of a ‘D-’ and ‘D,’ respectively. Rhode Island has the highest percentage of structurally deficient (SD) bridges in the country, with 22% of its 779 bridges earning the SD classification in 2019. 117 of Rhode Island’s bridges have a posted load restriction. Rhode Island’s share of rural roads in poor condition is ranked as the highest in the nation. Chronic underinvestment in both bridges and roads—coupled with the wear and tear of de-icing agents used to make surface transportation safe for travel during Rhode Island’s harsh winters—has led to an accelerated decline in the quality of these networks. To combat underinvestment, state legislature passed RhodeWorks, a funding and prioritization plan to fix more than 150 SD bridges. The program has also invested $81.26 million in paving 100 miles of roadway since its implementation.

While the state’s drinking water (C+) and wastewater (C) infrastructure also require attention, both sectors have kept up with maintenance over the years. Providence Water, the largest treatment facility in New England, is nearly 100 years old. Analysis of its distribution network shows higher lead concentrations than permitted by the EPA, a common problem for older pipelines. However, the utility has invested $460 million into capital improvements and replacements since 1996, covering 86 miles of pipelines. Rhode Island’s wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), serving 73% of the state’s residents, average 69 years old. The average pipe age is 100 years old in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, which is double their 50-year life cycle.

Sea level in the Ocean State is expected to rise by 10 feet by 2100, which threatens all infrastructure sectors. According to the “Rhode Island Statewide Climate Resilience Action Strategy,” a one percent storm surge could flood 337 miles of public roads and impact 163 bridges. Adding a seven-foot rise in sea level would impact 573 miles of Rhode Island’s roads and 90 bridges.

The report also includes recommendations to raise the grades, such as:

  • Improve multi-modal freight and landslide connections to ports to strengthen the entire freight system and reduce congestion that is costly to industries, local governments and the state’s economy when moving goods.
  • Increase in-state capacity for electricity generation to improve supply, reduce costs, ease regional market effects and recoup expenses by supporting renewable power generation with financial incentives, regulations that promote growth and industrial/logistics resources.
  • Continue to support the RhodeWorks plan and its emphasis on reaching a state of good repair for bridges, and identify additional reliable federal and state funding sources
  • Continue to develop infrastructure resiliency plans that address natural disasters and man-made extreme events. Incorporate the impacts of climate variations (sea level rise, extreme storm events) into the design, operation, maintenance and expansion of all types of infrastructure to improve community resilience.

The Report Card was created as a public service to citizens and policymakers to inform them of the infrastructure needs in their state. Civil engineers used their expertise and school report card letter grades to condense complicated data into an easy-to-understand analysis of Rhode Island’s infrastructure network. ASCE State and Regional Infrastructure Report Cards are modeled after the national Infrastructure Report Card, which gave America’s infrastructure a grade of ‘D+’ in 2017.

A full copy of the Report Card for Rhode Island’s Infrastructure is available at  https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/state-item/rhode-island/.

ABOUT THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF CIVIL ENGINEERS

Founded in 1852, the American Society of Civil Engineers represents more than 150,000 civil engineers worldwide and is America’s oldest national engineering society. ASCE works to raise awareness of the need to maintain and modernize the nation’s infrastructure using sustainable and resilient practices, advocates for increasing and optimizing investment in infrastructure, and improve engineering knowledge and competency. For more information, visit www.asce.org or www.infrastructurereportcard.org and follow us on Twitter, @ASCETweets and @ASCEGovRel.

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