State of Disrepair

State of Disrepair

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has released its 2009 Report Card for American Infrastructure, and the results are grim. The association gave the most powerful nation in the world an overall grade of D, and stated that it would take a five-year investment of $2.2 trillion to bring the U.S. up to par with the rest of its class—the world’s major postindustrial nations.

With the advent of the economic crisis, not to mention catastrophic failures such as breached levees during Hurricane Katrina and the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, infrastructure has drawn a level of attention it hasn’t seen since the days of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. And while some critics wonder whether investment in roads, bridges, rails, and the like will give the nation’s economy the immediate boost it needs, the ASCE has jumped wholeheartedly behind this cause.

“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 Wayne Klotz. “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.”

Since the ASCE’s last report in 2005, little has improved in the nation’s public works. At that time, the association put the cost of upgrades at $1.7 trillion. In the intervening years that number has increased by half a trillion. Some of the 15 infrastructure categories that the association tracks have gotten worse, while others have shown no improvement.

Aviation dropped from a D+ to a D primarily due to outdated air traffic control systems. Roads also slid, falling from a D to a nearly failing D-. According to the Federal Transit Administration, the cost to improve roads to good conditions is more than twice the current annual federal capital outlay of $9.8 billion.

Of the categories that showed no real improvement, solid waste held onto the highest grade, C+. This was thanks to the fact that more than a third of the 254 million tons of solid waste produced in the U.S. was recycled or recovered, which is a seven percent increase since 2000.

Bridges received a barely average grade of C. The ASCE estimates that 26 percent of bridges remain either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Public parks, recreation, and rail held tenuously to their collective C- due to underfunding. National parks face a $7 billion maintenance backlog and railroads need more than $200 billion through 2035, a good investment for the environment when you consider that rail freight is three times as fuel-efficient as trucked cargo.

Dams, hazardous waste, and schools each maintained their D average. The number of deficient dams has risen to 4,000, while downstream development has increased. Federal funding for cleanup of the nation’s worst toxic waste sites has declined steadily. The National Education Association estimates that $322 billion is needed to bring our existing schools into good repair.

Levees appeared on the report card for the first time, earning a dismal grade of D-. More than 85 percent of the estimated 100,000 miles of levees in the U.S. are privately owned and the reliability of most of them is unknown. The ASCE puts a rough cost of repair at $100 billion.

Drinking and wastewater systems and inland waterways also got a D-. An $11 billion budget shortfall means that leaking pipes will continue to waste about seven billion gallons of clean drinking water every day. Aging wastewater facilities discharge billions of gallons of untreated sludge into U.S. surface waters each year and need roughly $390 billion over the next 20 years to fix the problem.

The ASCE identified inland waterways as a neglected resource. While an average tow barge can carry the equivalent of 870 tractor trailer loads, 30 of the 257 locks still in use were built in the 19th century, while another 92 are more than 60 years old. It would take about $125 billion to replace these.

The only grade improvement in the report card went to energy, which rose from a D to a D+. Much progress has been made in grid reinforcement since 2005, but as demand continues to increase, as much as $1.5 trillion could be needed to upgrade electric utilities by 2030.