S P E C I A L R E P O R T
The collapse last summer of the Minneapolis bridge that carried Interstate 35W over the Mississippi trained a spotlight on a long-standing national problem: how years of neglect, underfunding, and a lack of leadership and vision allowed America’s infrastructure to deteriorate. This special report examines the state of the nation’s infrastructure in 15 major categories—as outlined in ASCE’s three “report cards”—as well as the various causes and costs associated with the problem, and explores some possible solutions.
U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Joshua Adam Nuzzo
Thirteen commuters were killed and more than 100 were injured on August 1, 2007, when the eight-lane bridge in Minneapolis carrying Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River collapsed. The 40-year-old steel deck truss crossing had been considered structurally deficient since 1990, but engineers with the Minnesota Department of Transportation had not believed the bridge to be in danger of imminent failure; indeed, it had been inspected by Minnesota officials just three months before the collapse. The tragedy led to congressional hearings and helped to focus new attention nationwide on the state of America’s crumbling infrastructure.
During the summer of 2007 a series of incidents forced the American public, the media, and the nation’s leaders to take a close look at the state of the country’s physical infrastructure—that vast system of highways, bridges, airports, rail lines, pipelines, power lines, dams, waterways, water treatment plants, parks, schools, and other publicly owned or publicly regulated facilities that make it possible for Americans to enjoy what is widely regarded as the highest standard of living in the world:
- The collapse on August 1 of the eight-lane bridge in Minneapolis carrying Interstate 35W over the Mississippi took the lives of 13 people and injured more than 100 others. Although the 40-year-old steel deck truss crossing had been considered “structurally deficient” since 1990, engineers with the Minnesota Department of Transportation did not believe that the bridge was in danger of imminent failure.
- The explosion on July 18 of an 83-year-old steam pipe in the New York City borough of Manhattan sent a geyser of hot steam and debris spewing as high as the city skyline for nearly two hours, leading to the death by heart attack of a person being evacuated from the affected area.
- Air travelers experienced a truly horrific year overall, especially in July and August, when late arrivals, late departures, and canceled or diverted flights at overly crowded airports hit record levels or came close to setting records. In particular, more than 30 percent of all flights arrived late in July and nearly 30 percent were late in August, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), a division of the U.S Department of Transportation (DOT).
And just as this awful summer was ending, the Texas Transportation Institute, a research arm of Texas A&M University, released its 2007 Urban Mobility Report on September 18, detailing how congestion on U.S. roads is getting worse. It’s a problem that forces Americans to spend 4.2 billion extra hours each year in their cars—approximately 38 extra hours for each urban driver—and wastes 2.9 billion gal (11 billion L) of fuel, at a total cost to the national economy of $78 billion.
As a result of these incidents and the Texas institute’s report, major news organizations began to discuss what was wrong with the nation’s infrastructure. The Minneapolis bridge collapse and the recurring problems for airline passengers, in particular, also led to a series of congressional hearings in the summer and autumn and briefly drew comments from several of the leading candidates in this year’s presidential election.
The mood of this debate was bleak from the outset, as evidenced by three sentiments, all expressed on August 5, less than a week after the I-35W collapse.
On that day, John McQuaid, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist recently with the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and now based in Washington, D.C., as a fellow with the Open Society Institute, wrote an op-ed piece (“The Can’t-Do Nation: Is America Losing Its Knack for Getting Big Things Done?”) for the Washington Post in which he stated that America is losing its reputation as a problem-solving nation—one that once constructed such great engineering projects as the Panama Canal and Hoover Dam—and instead has become a “can’t-do nation.” Pointing to the Minneapolis bridge disaster, the failure of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and America’s current foreign policy troubles, McQuaid pondered the question, “has there ever been a period in our history when so many American plans and projects have, literally or figuratively, collapsed?”
As people were reading McQuaid’s piece, they could also find an editorial (“A Bridge Collapses”) that day in the New York Times warning that “the nation’s physical foundations seem to be crumbling beneath us.” The Minneapolis bridge, it said, the Manhattan steam pipe, and New Orleans’s “substandard levees . . . are some of the most dramatic signs of the nation’s failure to maintain and enhance its aging physical structures at a time when demands on roads, transit systems, sewage treatment plants, and other vital facilities are rising.”
Also on August 5, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an editorial cartoon by Mike Luckovich in which Osama bin Laden declared, “We must attack America’s infrastructure before it collapses.”
The critical question is, how safe is America’s infrastructure?
Stephen E. Flynn, Ph.D., a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York City, and the author of The Edge of Disaster (New York City: Random House, 2007), maintains that Americans are in denial about how vulnerable the country is to potential catastrophes. In an interview for this article, Flynn noted that “we’re rapidly approaching a crisis point” if we are not willing to make the infrastructure a national priority and “make sure that we are adequately maintaining and upgrading the infrastructure to meet projected demands.”
The fact that the infrastructure has not been a national priority is evident from key economic data. From 1950 to 1970, for example, the United States devoted 3 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to infrastructure spending; since 1980, however, spending on infrastructure has been cut by a third, to just 2 percent of GDP, notes Sherle R. Schwenninger, the New York City–based director of the economic growth program of the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The result has been a huge shortfall of needed investments, explains Schwenninger.
By contrast, China and India are spending respectively 9 percent and 5 percent of their GDPS on infrastructure projects, noted Thomas J. Donahue, the president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in an August 10 address to the 10th Anniversary Transportation Summit 2007, which was held in Irving, Texas. Both the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers recently launched campaigns to promote awareness of the nation’s infrastructure needs, the former adopting the slogan, “Let’s rebuild America” and the latter calling its initiative the Alliance for Improving America’s Infrastructure.
The U.S. government has also shifted its share of infrastructure spending from the national budget to local budgets. While the federal share of infrastructure spending rose from 17 percent in 1956 to 40 percent in 1977, the federal government then cut back its contributions, leaving state and local governments responsible for approximately 75 percent of public infrastructure outlays by the end of the 1980s, according to Trends in Public Infrastructure Spending, a 1999 report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
In addressing the 2007 ASCE Annual Civil Engineering Conference, which was held in November in Orlando, Florida, Patrick J. Natale, P.E., F.ASCE, ASCE’s executive director, called attention to the state of the nation’s infrastructure: “Years of deferred infrastructure investments and maintenance and [the] failure of public officials to act on infrastructure needs place the public at risk and hinder our country’s economic growth and competitiveness. It is a true crisis.”
America’s infrastructure faces two enormous and simultaneous challenges, explains Lawrence H. Roth, P.E., G.E., F.ASCE, ASCE’s deputy executive director. “Much of it was built following World War II, so it’s fifty or sixty years old and it’s being attacked by decay and neglect,” Roth notes. “Plus, our population is still growing dramatically, so not only do we have old and outdated infrastructure, we are also putting new demands on it. It’s just being stretched in many different ways.” Roth warns that “we’ve probably got ticking time bombs out there, and if we don’t take care of our infrastructure, if we continue to neglect its maintenance, then it’s not going to be able to take care of us.”
An even harsher appraisal comes from William P. Henry, P.E., D.WRE, F.ASCE, a former president of ASCE and a former chair of the American Association of Engineering Societies, which is based in Washington, D.C. “Our infrastructure is in crisis mode—how many more people must die needlessly because we will not take proper care of our infrastructure?” asked Henry in a written response to questions from Civil Engineering.
Now retired, Henry presided over the release of ASCE’s 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which assigned an overall grade of D to 15 infrastructure categories on the basis of condition, performance, capacity, and funding. Information from that report—which examined aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, navigable waterways, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, security, solid waste, mass transit, and wastewater—was widely cited during last year’s debate over America’s infrastructure. A new edition of the report is not expected until 2009.
To develop its 2005 assessment, ASCE assembled a panel of 24 of the nation’s leading civil engineers, analyzed hundreds of studies, reports, and other sources, and surveyed more than 2,000 engineers nationwide to determine what was happening in the field. Letter grades were assigned according to a traditional grading scale. Thus, if 77 percent of bridges were in good condition or better, that category earned a grade of C. Despite the tragic role played by a bridge failure in calling attention to infrastructure shortcomings, bridges actually earned a C in 2005. Conversely, drinking water, navigable waterways, and wastewater received the lowest score: D–.
Because the condition of several infrastructure categories had worsened between the 2001 assessment and the 2005 edition, ASCE warned that “congested highways, overflowing sewers, and corroding bridges” were creating a “looming crisis that jeopardizes our nation’s prosperity and our quality of life.”
The total price tag to adequately address all of America’s infrastructure needs, ASCE concluded in 2005, would be $1.6 trillion over a five-year period. This figure excluded security needs, which have not yet been adequately assessed.
To better determine the current extent of the problems plaguing America’s physical infrastructure in 2008, Civil Engineering contacted more than 40 engineers, academics, public officials, and other experts and examined dozens of documents, including government and industry studies and surveys, transcripts of congressional testimony, speeches, and other published material.
This special report is the result, and the story that these sources and resources tell is one of an enormous system that is breathtaking in its scope and capabilities. Americans can travel along some 4 million mi (6.4 million km) of public highways, including 47,000 mi (76,000 km) of the interstate highway system, and catch a flight at more than 5,000 airports open to the public (600 of them served by roughly a dozen major airlines and by scores of smaller carriers), and the structures in which they live and work are lit by a power industry that can generate more than 4 million GWh of electricity annually, according to data from the BTS and the Edison Electric Institute, of Washington, D.C.
Moreover, much of America’s infrastructure is highly interconnected. “When that [Minneapolis] bridge went down, it took out other systems with it—another road, a railroad track, and also it interrupted operations at a lock,” explains Casey Dinges, ASCE’s managing director for external affairs. Thus, a single structure affected three other modes of transportation.
But many observers worry that America’s infrastructure is now being squandered through neglect and tightfisted budgets. “We are a generation that inherited an infrastructure that was built by most of our grandparents and great-grandparents,” notes Flynn. “But we’re just running it down like a battery instead of thinking about it as an investment that we must pass on to our children and our grandchildren.”
And perhaps worst of all, as Flynn and other experts interviewed for this article note, America’s infrastructure faces a crisis that even more money and even scarier headlines will do nothing to resolve: a lack of vision for setting priorities and a lack of leadership when it comes to confronting the most difficult challenges.
Because the current concern over the infrastructure began with a bridge failure on the interstate highway system, bridges and highways are probably the best starting point.
Many people in the United States would probably agree with Mary E. Peters, the U.S. secretary of transportation, who at a news conference after the I-35W disaster declared that “bridges in America should not fall down.” But the fact is that American bridges do collapse. Some 1,500 bridges in the United States collapsed between 1966 and 2005, noted Jean-Louis Briaud, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE, a Texas Transportation Institute researcher and the holder of the Buchanan chair at Texas A&M University, in a written response to questions from Civil Engineering.
Hydraulic conditions, especially soil erosion around the bridge supports during large floods, accounted for 60 percent of those collapses, followed distantly by ship collisions and overloads, at approximately 12 percent each, explained Briaud. But there were other causes as well.
One of the deadliest bridge disasters in American history resulted from the failure of the eyebar suspension system—in part from corrosion and poor maintenance—on the Silver Bridge, which carried U.S. Route 35 over the Ohio River to link Ohio and West Virginia. The structure collapsed on December 15, 1967, during the evening rush hour, killing 46 people. In the aftermath of that disaster, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) established the National Bridge Inspection Program, which requires that every bridge longer than 20 ft (6.1 m) be inspected at least once every two years.
The cause of the Minneapolis collapse is not yet known, and it might take another year or more for investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board to arrive at and release their conclusions. But the fact that the I-35W bridge had been inspected by Minnesota officials in May—just three months before its collapse—raised questions about the current inspection system used by state transportation departments, a system that relies heavily on visual inspections carried out by technicians rather than by licensed professional engineers. In its August 5 editorial, the New York Times questioned the “adequacy of current inspections” and suggested that inspectors might need to make greater use of “better sensing equipment to detect hidden flaws.”
Criticism of the current bridge inspection system is hardly new. In the March/April 2001 issue of the FHWA’s newsletter Public Roads, researchers reported that even during an in-depth, hands-on test inspection of a particular bridge, only half of the 42 inspectors who completed the project noted a misaligned bearing and only 3 noted the indications of a crack. More than a third of the inspectors in the test were deemed to have performed “an incomplete in-depth inspection.”
The news about bridges is not all bad, however. Another report—the BTS’s Condition of U.S. Highway Bridges: 1990–2007—indicated that there were 572,205 highway bridges in the United States in 1990, 137,865 of which were classified as structurally deficient and another 100,355 of which were classified as functionally obsolete. Thus, nearly 42 percent of all highway bridges were in less than ideal condition 17 years ago. By mid-August 2007, however, the combined number of structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges had decreased to 25.6 percent of all bridges, even as the total number of bridges increased by nearly 5 percent, to approximately 600,000 structures, the BTS report noted.
Although not necessarily unsafe, a structurally deficient bridge may require weight and speed restrictions because of its deteriorated structural components; thus it is “approaching the condition where replacement or rehabilitation will be necessary,” explained Andrew W. Herrmann, P.E., F.ASCE, the managing partner of Hardesty & Hanover, L.L.P, of New York City, and a member of ASCE’s Board of Direction, in testimony on bridge safety and conditions he provided to the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on September 5, 2007, and to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on September 20. (See “Herrmann, Womack Present ASCE’s Views on Bridge Infrastructure to Congress,” ASCE News, October 2007, page 1.)
Likewise, a functionally obsolete bridge can safely carry traffic, but it might not be able to accommodate current traffic volumes or modern vehicle sizes and weights, thus contributing to congestion and requiring potentially lengthy detours for school buses or emergency vehicles, Herrmann noted.
While the number of functionally obsolete bridges has declined from more than 100,000 in 1990 to approximately 80,000 today, there have been fluctuations. For example, the number of functionally obsolete bridges was greater in 1995 and 1996 than in 1994 and in 1997, BTS data indicate.
With regard to structurally deficient bridges—as measured by the FHWA’s National Inventory of Bridges—the decrease has been steadier, roughly 0.5 percent annually, reducing the number of such bridges by approximately 2,000 each year, notes Richard Sause, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, the director of the Lehigh University program Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems.
But Sause is not reassured by the current pace at which the number of deficient or obsolete bridges is being reduced: “If we have twenty-five percent now, in ten years at our current rate we would still have twenty percent. That doesn’t sound a whole lot better to me.”
The nation’s highways, which earned a D in ASCE’s 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, also face considerable challenges. For one thing, new road construction has not kept pace with road usage. Vehicle travel on all public roads in the United States increased from approximately 600 billion vehicle mi (965 billion vehicle km) in the mid 1950s to approximately 3 trillion vehicle mi (4.8 trillion vehicle km) today, according to a May 2007 report, Future Options for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, an initiative of the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board.
The fact that the I-35W bridge had been inspected by Minnesota officials in May—just three months before its collapse—raised questions about the current inspection system used by state transportation departments, a system that relies heavily on visual inspections carried out by technicians rather than by licensed professional engineers.
The interstate highway system alone sees more than 700 billion vehicle mi (1.126 trillion vehicle km) annually “on a network little changed since its original conception over 50 years ago,” Future Options noted. By 2035, interstate travel could reach 1.8 trillion vehicle mi (2.9 trillion vehicle km), and travel on all public roads could reach a total of 5 trillion vehicle mi (8 trillion vehicle km).
And be prepared for “a tsunami of freight” as the amount of cargo on U.S. roads doubles over the next two decades, predicts Jeff Solsby, the director of public affairs for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, of Washington, D.C.
Such an increasingly mobile nation “cannot ride into such a future on our grandfathers’ interstate,” Future Options warned. Just to maintain the current level of service and related operational standards, the interstate highway system needs to expand from its current 46,000 mi (74,000 km) to 62,000 mi (100,000 km) by 2035, argued Future Options. Such expansion should add 173,000 lane mi (278,000 lane km) of new capacity to the interstate’s existing 212,000 lane mi (341,000 lane km) by 2035 and convert some 84,400 lane mi (135,800 lane km) of the national network that is outside of the interstate system into interstate lane miles, the report explained. The 160,000 mi (256,000 km) of public roads, including the interstates, that make up this national network are deemed by the FHWA to be “important to the nation’s economy, defense, and mobility.”
Extension of the interstate system is also critical to accommodate gaps in the current system that developed over time. Alan E. Pisarski, a transportation issues consultant and the author of the Transportation Research Board’s Commuting in America series of reports, notes by way of example that in the 1950s there were no plans to build an interstate directly from Las Vegas to Phoenix because those two cities were then much smaller. Today these cities are among the largest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States yet still do not have a direct connection, Pisarski says. Moreover, there are 70 urbanized areas with populations of 50,000 or more that still are not connected to the interstate system. “Which of those will be the Las Vegas or the Phoenix of the next 50 years?” asked the report Future Options.
At least one observer of the nation’s surface transportation system—the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)—suggests that the United States must essentially double its current highway arterial capacity to accommodate all of the projected growth in traffic, according to that group’s report Future Needs of the U.S. Transportation System, released in February 2007.
On the positive side, the physical conditions of both bridges and highways have benefited from a “large increase in system preservation investment since 1997,” stated a recent report to Congress prepared by the U.S. DOT, the FHWA, and the Federal Transit Administration, 2006 Status of the Nation’s Highways, Bridges, and Transit: Conditions and Performance. Under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which funded federal surface transportation programs from 1998 to 2003, total highway expenditures by federal, state, and local governments reached $147.5 billion in 2004—an inflation-adjusted 22.7 percent increase since 1997, the report noted. Combined with a new emphasis on such activities as resurfacing, rehabilitation, and reconstruction of existing highway lanes and bridges, TEA-21 funding resulted in an inflation-adjusted 34 percent increase in system rehabilitation, from $23 billion in 1997 to $36.4 by 2004.
Despite these efforts, however, travel on the nation’s public roads is increasingly crowded and rough. Nearly 32 percent of all trips in urbanized areas occurred during times of congestion in 2004, up from slightly more than 27 percent in 1997, according to the 2006 status report. More than 55 percent of all trips in the United States in 2004 involved pavement that did not provide “good” ride quality, and approximately 48 percent of trips on the highways making up the national network involved pavement that did not provide a “good” ride, the report noted.
Improving the highway system will take money, of course, and lots of it. Just maintaining highways and bridges in their current condition will require an estimated $78.8 billion annually through 2024 (in 2004 dollars), predicted 2006 Status of the Nation’s Highways, Bridges, and Transit: Conditions and Performance. The cost to improve highways and bridges would exceed $131 billion annually, the report concluded, a figure more than 87 percent higher than the $70 billion in capital improvements that were funded by all levels of government in 2004.
Investments in system expansions, for example, constructing new roads and bridges and widening existing roads, increased from $21.5 billion in 1997 to $27.5 billion in 2004, only an 8.3 percent rise in inflation-adjusted terms, the 2006 status report stated. But once TEA-21 expired, lawmakers required 22 months and 11 extensions of TEA-21 before they passed a new federal transportation bill, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act—A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), in August 2005. That measure was designed to provide more than $284 billion for transportation projects in fiscal years (FYS) 2005 to 2009, including more than $4 billion annually for bridge replacement, rehabilitation, and systematic preventive maintenance. But both the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have warned that the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for most federal highway and mass transit programs through federal fuel taxes, could run out of money by 2009, quickly generating a shortfall of more than $4 billion. The reasons include the growing popularity of vehicles that are more fuel efficient and the fact that the current fuel tax, 18.4 cents a gallon, has not been raised since 1993.
To make matters worse, “inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index has eroded the real value of [Highway Trust Fund] revenues by some 30 percent” since 1993, noted Representative Jim Oberstar (D-Minnesota), the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in response to written questions from Civil Engineering.
Furthermore, recent dramatic increases in construction and maintenance costs, especially in connection with such materials as cement, steel, asphalt, and aggregate, have forced some state planners “to cancel or delay highway projects due to insufficient funds,” noted a September 2007 FHWA report, Growth in Highway Construction and Maintenance Costs. Pennsylvania, for example, is so strapped for transportation project cash that it is considering leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike, one of the nation’s earliest toll superhighways and a model for the interstate system.
Janet Kavinoky, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s director of transportation and infrastructure, offers this blunt assessment: “We don’t have enough money to pay for the guarantees Congress made in SAFETEA-LU.”
Too many states also collect gas taxes and other fees for bridge and highway improvement projects but then use the money to fund needs unrelated to transportation, adds Kavinoky. Texas, in particular, recently decided to divert $1.6 billion in transportation funds to educational needs over two years, she says. In California, approximately $2.5 billion in gas tax money was diverted to the state’s general fund between 2002 and 2006, halting or delaying work on critical safety improvements, congestion relief projects, road repairs, and other transportation needs. California voters restricted such diversions in November 2006, effectively closing a loophole that had existed in a similar measure passed four years earlier, according to the California Transportation Journal (issue 1, 2007).
America’s aviation system earned a D+ in ASCE’s 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, but that was long before last year’s debacles. “The first half of 2007 has been the worst for airline delays since [the BTS] started keeping comprehensive statistics 13 years ago,” noted a summary prepared for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee before hearings held by that body on September 26 on airline delays and customer service.
Just seven locations—Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Philadelphia International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and New York City’s LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports—accounted for 72 percent of delays last year, explained Agam N. Sinha, Ph.D., a senior vice president of the Mitre Corporation, of McLean, Virginia, and the general manager of Mitre’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, a federally funded research and development center of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in his testimony at the hearing on airline delays. Those same seven airports accounted for 55 percent of delays in 2000, Sinha added. Mitre Corporation studied capacity issues for the FAA in both 2004 and 2007 and for a seminal report it issued in May 2007, Capacity Needs in the National Airspace System 2007–2025.
At that same hearing, Robert A. Sturgell, the FAA’s acting administrator, noted that the aviation industry was “enjoying a record level of safety,” but he also stressed that “we are at a critical point with congestion and delays.”
The number of passengers the U.S. aviation industry handles each year has grown sharply, from approximately 545 million in 1995 to 739 million in 2005, and the number projected for 2015 is 1 billion. “If we don’t make changes to our system, our projections indicate that . . . we will see an increase in delays of over sixty percent [compared with] what we have today,” warned Sturgell.
Without “significant infrastructure investment,” aviation delays are expected to cost the U.S. economy $170 billion between 2000 and 2012, according to a statement that ASCE submitted to the Senate Committee on Finance at a July 12, 2007, hearing exploring the future of aviation financing.
Critical aspects of the system in need of change include airport capacity, the nation’s aging air traffic control system, and the funding mechanisms for airport improvements, note aviation sector observers. Patrick Forrey, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, of Washington, D.C., also offered testimony at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s September 26 hearing, calling attention to several airports that recently faced more scheduled departures during peak periods than they could physically handle. Consider two such examples:
At Newark Liberty International Airport, 57 flights were scheduled to depart between 9 and 10 AM on September 5. But Newark could handle only 45 flights an hour during that period, Forrey said, which “meant that 12 flights right off the bat were instantly delayed.” On September 7, 123 flights were scheduled to depart from O’Hare International Airport between 1 and 2 PM, although the airport could handle only 100 planes during that period, Forrey testified.
Meeting the growing physical infrastructure needs of the aviation sector will require $41.2 billion by 2011, according to a report recently submitted to Congress by the FAA, National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) 2007–2011.
Moreover, the situation last year would have been even worse if certain improvements had not already been made, explained Sinha. Since 2006, five new runways have opened—in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and St. Louis—and the effect of these new runways “has been an increase from having just one landing runway in poor weather to two, or from two to three, greatly increasing the arrival capacity of the airport,” said Sinha.
Sturgell noted that more improvements are expected by 2010—including three new runways, two airfield reconfigurations, and one runway extension—and that another four runways and three runway extensions will be under consideration through 2017.
But even with such improvements, at least four major metropolitan regions—New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—will still not have sufficient capacity in 2015 to meet expected demand, Sinha testified. By 2025, four more regions—Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and San Diego—will be unable to meet projected demand.
If planned improvements do not occur on time—a very real threat given that it can take 10 years or more to approve and construct a single new runway—seven other metropolitan regions will fall short of needed aviation capacity for 2025, Sinha warned.
Without “significant infrastructure investment,” aviation delays are expected to cost the U.S. economy $170 billion between 2000 and 2012, according to a statement that ASCE submitted to the Senate Committee on Finance at a July 12, 2007, hearing exploring the future of aviation financing.
To improve the nation’s air traffic control system, which currently relies on ground-based radar, the FAA is promoting a satellite-based navigation, surveillance, and networking system as part of what is called the Next Generation (Next-Gen) Air Transportation System. Scheduled for adoption between now and 2025, NextGen would use global positioning technology to determine where a particular aircraft was at any moment, enabling aircraft to take off and land in closer proximity to one another and thus boosting the number of flights per hour. (See “A More Direct Route,” Civil Engineering, December 2007.) NextGen is expected to cost $8 billion to $10 billion over the first 10 years and as much as $15 billion to $22 billion through 2025, according to testimony provided by Peter R. Orszag, the CBO’s director, to the Senate Committee on Finance at its July 12 hearing.
Airport capacity improvement projects are generally funded by the federal government through the Airport and Airway Trust Fund—a dedicated funding source based on fuel taxes and other user fees—and by the airports through the passenger facility charges that are collected on every passenger at commercial airports controlled by public agencies, along with landing fees, parking fees, and other charges for the use of airport facilities, according to BTS data. But the FAA has proposed changing the current approach to a cost-based mechanism that would focus on aircraft operations and contain provisions for congestion pricing, noted Sturgell in his testimony.
One criticism of the current funding mechanism involves the growth of what are called regional jets, which seat 50 to 90 passengers. The use of such smaller aircraft increased by more than 200 percent between 2000 and 2006, the jets often replacing lower-flying turboprop aircraft, according to a summary prepared for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee prior to that body’s September 26 hearing on airline delays and consumer service. As Orszag testified, “Two smaller regional jets impose roughly double the cost of a single larger jet,” even though the tax revenue collected on those two jets is the same as for a single larger jet carrying roughly the same number of passengers.
Likewise, the FAA has repeatedly noted that the general aviation industry, which includes scheduled cargo flights, charter flights, sightseeing flights, and recreational flights, is responsible for at least 11 percent of air traffic costs yet pays only about 3 percent of the taxes that go into the federal aviation trust fund.
Joakim Karlsson, an associate professor in the aviation department at Daniel Webster College, also questions how accurately the aviation industry’s infrastructure costs are being calculated. Although the airlines tend to list their leading costs as labor, fuel, transport-related expenses (involving what the larger carriers pay to their commuter businesses), and aircraft ownership, Karlsson’s research suggests that the total bill for maintaining and operating the current aviation infrastructure, as well as for adding new infrastructure, actually represents the industry’s third-highest expense. Keep in mind, though, that a large share—63 percent—of aviation infrastructure and security costs comes from taxes and fees, Karlsson notes. So although the airlines collect these fees, the economic burden is shared by passengers as well, he says.
Others—among them Tom Slater, P.E., M.ASCE, a former ASCE director and vice president of ASCE’s Zone II, the director of aviation for W.K. Dickson, of Raleigh, North Carolina, and one of those who helped prepare the aviation sections in ASCE’s two most recent infrastructure assessments—are concerned that new security initiatives are consuming money that otherwise would go to capital improvements. Security is critical, Slater acknowledges, but so is a strong aviation system. The total shutdown of commercial and general aviation after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks demonstrated just how fragile that system is and how that fragility can affect the rest of the nation, Slater says. “Not improving and keeping our air transport system running efficiently has a tremendous impact on how we as Americans and our economy function,” Slater contends.
As a private pilot, Slater also opposes the idea of increasing taxes or fees on general aviation. Instead, he believes that the problem is a lack of investment in general aviation airports, where the money currently collected often goes to the general funds of local governments rather than to infrastructure improvements at the general aviation facilities.
Much of the news about America’s mass transit systems—buses, light-rail, and other commuter options—sounds good on first hearing, making it seem that the D+ the system earned in ASCE’s 2005 assessment was an anomaly. After all, funding is up. Indeed, the money promised under SAFETEA-LU exceeds $52 billion over six years, a 46 percent increase over TEA-21 funding, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) notes. Ridership is up—Americans took more than 10 billion trips on public transportation in 2006, the industry’s best year since 1957, and a 31 percent increase from the 7.7 billion trips in 1995, reports the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). The APTA forecasts steady growth in mass transit ridership of 3.5 percent annually for the next 20 years, notes Art Guzzetti, the trade association’s vice president for policy.
Improving the physical condition and service of the nation’s mass transit systems will require between $30.2 billion and $45.3 billion a year, approximately 130 to 243 percent more than the total investment for 2004.
Track mileage and the number of active urban vehicles also increased, from 9,922 mi (15,965 km) in 1997 to 10,892 mi (17,525 km) in 2004 and from 102,258 vehicles to 120,659 vehicles during the same period, according to 2006 Status of the Nation’s Highways, Bridges, and Transit: Conditions and Performance, which, as noted above, was prepared by the U.S. DOT, the FHWA, and the Federal Transit Administration. That report also noted that the physical condition of bus and rail vehicles, tracks, structures, and yards all improved between 1997 and 2004.
Public support for mass transit ballot measures also has grown, notes Guzzetti. For at least the last seven years, ballot measures to fund new mass transit systems or to expand existing ones have been passing approximately 70 percent of the time, although some of these electoral triumphs involve second attempts that the voters initially rejected. “Often, if that same [ballot] question comes back, it meets with more success,” Guzzetti explains, adding that “once you get a system in place in a community and people can see the benefits, they are inclined to support extensions.”
At the same time, however, 16 percent of the buses in the nation’s bus fleet are operating beyond their expected service lives, and 54 percent will reach the end of their expected service lives over the next six years, warned a March 2007 report—State and National Transit Investment Analysis—prepared for the APTA and AASHTO by Cambridge Systematics, Inc., of Bethesda, Maryland. The same report found that 35 percent of the nation’s rail rolling stock is operating beyond its expected life, and an additional 18 percent will reach that point over the next six years. Ten percent of the maintenance vehicles, switching systems, power generation and distribution facilities, and other capital equipment also have surpassed their expected service lives, the report concluded.
Maintaining mass transit systems in their current condition and at their current levels of service will, depending on ridership, require capital investments from all levels of government of approximately $20 billion to $35 billion annually through 2025, State and National Transit Investment Analysis concluded. But in 2004 total capital infrastructure investment for mass transit reached approximately $13.2 billion, the report noted. Improving the physical condition and service of the nation’s mass transit systems will require between $30.2 billion and $45.3 billion a year, approximately 130 to 243 percent more than the total investment for 2004.
The FTA’s projections of “costs to maintain” and “costs to improve” in 2006 Status of the Nation’s Highways, Bridges, and Transit: Conditions and Performance are somewhat lower: $15.8 billion annually (in 2004 dollars) to maintain, based on projected ridership growth of 1.57 percent per year, and $21.8 billion annually to improve. Nearly 90 percent of capital improvement investments in mass transit in the decades ahead will be in urban areas with populations of more than 1 million, according to the FTA, and approximately 58 percent of the capital improvements needed to maintain mass transit systems will be in rail projects.
In its 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, ASCE added a category for heavy rail infrastructure—including freight rail traffic, Amtrak passenger service, and intercity passenger and commuter rail service—that earned a grade of C– because “limited rail capacity” had created “significant chokepoints and delays” for the first time since World War II. The I-35W bridge collapse also raised questions about the safety of railroad bridges and led the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in September 2007 to recommend that rail operators “adopt and implement safe maintenance practices to prevent bridge failures,” according to an FRA fact sheet on railroad bridge safety.
One of the government’s greatest challenges in this area, however, is that “[l]ittle information is publicly available on the condition of railroad bridges and tunnels and on their contribution to congestion” because the largely deregulated railroads “consider this information proprietary and share it with the federal government selectively,” explained an August 2007 GAO report, Railroad Bridges and Tunnels: Federal Role in Providing Safety Oversight and Freight Infrastructure Investment Could Be Better Targeted. On the basis of research conducted before the Minneapolis bridge disaster, the GAO report noted that freight volumes on U.S. railroads increased by 105 percent—in terms of ton-miles per route miles—between 1990 and 2005 and that this traffic was concentrated on fewer rail lines, “thereby increasing both the strain on and the importance of key bridges and tunnels.”
Indeed, an FRA study revealed that there had been an average of two incidents of “catastrophic structural failure” of railroad bridges each year from January 1982 to December 2006, according to an FRA statement in the September 11, 2007, Federal Register. Approximately 61,000 bridges and 800 tunnels are owned and maintained by the nation’s major (class I) railroads, and another 15,000 bridges are owned and maintained by the regional (class II and class III) railroads. At least 50 percent of these bridges were constructed before 1920, according to a 1993 FRA survey.
In its September 2007 recommendations, the FRA noted that while most major railroads follow the FRA guidelines on bridge safety, some do not adequately address problems discovered during bridge inspections quickly enough to prevent critical failures or near failures; moreover, “a considerable number” of smaller railroads have inadequate inspection and maintenance programs or show “absolutely no evidence of bridge inspection, management, or maintenance.”
Although the August 2007 GAO report noted that the federal government provides only a fraction of the amount that the railroads themselves spend on freight rail infrastructure—$263 million from federal sources versus an estimated $9 billion from the railroads in FY 2006—it pointed out that the federal funds “are not invested under any comprehensive national freight strategy, nor are the public benefits they generate aligned with any such strategy.”
To keep pace with projected demand, the U.S. freight railroad sector needs an investment of $148 billion in infrastructure expansion over the next 28 years, according to National Freight Infrastructure Capacity and Investment Study, a report prepared by Cambridge Systematics for the American Association of Railroads and released in September 2007. Without such an investment, an estimated 30 percent of the track in key rail corridors will lack sufficient capacity, and another 25 percent of key track will be operating at or near its full capacity by 2035, “causing severe congestion that will affect every region of the country and potentially shift freight to an already heavily congested highway system,” the report concluded.
Regarding passenger rail, a July 2007 AASHTO report, A New Vision for the 21st Century, noted that there are 21 potential geographic corridors for expanding intercity passenger rail service in the United States. Providing such intercity rail service for each corridor would require an investment of approximately $3 billion a year over a 20-year period, according to AASHTO.
The United States is definitely lagging in high-speed rail service, noted Infrastructure 2007: A Global Perspective, a report published in May 2007 by the Urban Land Institute, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and London. Japan already has 1,243 mi (2,000 km) of high-speed rail and plans to construct approximately 186 mi (300 km) more by 2020, and China plans to construct more than 1,554 mi (2,500 km) over the same period. But the United States has only about 186 mi (300 km) and no plans to construct additional high-speed lines. “America is more of a follower and no longer a world leader when it comes to infrastructure,” the report warned.
Although the United States enjoys an abundance of water resources—navigable waterways that carry barge traffic, dams and levees that protect communities and store water for consumption and irrigation, and systems that bring freshwater into homes and carry away and treat wastewater—much of that flowing infrastructure earned some of the lowest scores in ASCE’s 2005 assessment. Moreover, nearly all the grades were lower than in the 2001 report, notes Dominic Izzo, P.E., F.ASCE, a senior manager in the civil engineering practice for the Houston firm Exponent and the chairman of the Wetland and Sediment Management Committee, a body within ASCE’s Coasts, Oceans, Ports, and Rivers Institute. Izzo also served as the principal deputy assistant secretary of the army for civil works from July 2001 to November 2002 and in that capacity was responsible for overseeing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works program.
The navigable waterways category declined from a D+ in ASCE’s 2001 assessment to a D– in the 2005 edition; wastewater and drinking water both dropped from a D to a D–; and dams remained the same, receiving a D in both reports.
The downward trend for three out of four water categories “should be a great concern,” notes Izzo. According to an August 2007 CBO paper, “Trends in Public Spending on Transportation and Water Infrastructure 1956 to 2004,” expenditures on highways, roads, aviation, mass transit, and rail all have been trending up while “expenditures on water transportation, water supply, waste treatment, and water resources in general have been trending down or are flat,” explains Izzo.
He also cites a June 2007 report, Decision-Making Chronology for the Lake Pontchartrain & Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project, from the Corps’s Institute for Water Resources. That work describes how the Corps’s civil works budget—essentially the nation’s water resources infrastructure budget—has been declining in inflation-adjusted terms in the past four decades, Izzo says. According to the report, “the purchasing power of the Corps’s annual construction budget in the 1960s was about twice what it is today.”
Izzo is especially disturbed by the condition of the nation’s navigable waterway system: “I think [it] has been neglected for some time, and I don’t see any great signs of that being corrected.”
The Corps owns or operates 257 lock chambers at 212 sites along more than 12,000 mi (19,200 km) of inland waterways. Lock chambers have a design life of 50 years, which means that the system is increasingly becoming functionally obsolete. The oldest lock chamber still in use dates to 1839, 29 others also were constructed in the 19th century, and more than 90 chambers were more than 60 years old when ASCE’s 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure was published. In FY 2005 the average age of all the Corps’s locks was 55 years, according to a report the Corps released in February 2007, The U.S. Waterway System—Transportation Facts. If no new lock chambers are constructed, more than 8 of every 10 chambers will be functionally obsolete by 2020, the report warned. ASCE’s 2005 assessment indicated that more than $125 billion would be needed to replace the current inland water system.
In March 2006 the Inland Waterways Users Board—a federal advisory committee created by the Water Resources Development Act of 1986—expressed “grave concern that inland waterways are one of our most underappreciated national assets,” according to the board’s annual report to Congress and the secretary of the army. Unscheduled lock outage hours—for the most part a result of insufficient maintenance—had increased 110 percent over the past 10 years and the maintenance backlog for navigation facilities had grown to more than $600 million, the board noted.
In its annual report for the following year, the board lamented the “[c]hronic underfunding of projects” and the fact that authorized projects that once were completed in 6 to 10 years were now taking as much as 20 years to complete, sometimes doubling a project’s cost.
Although the board noted that the Bush administration’s FY 2008 budget request had proposed the highest levels of funding ever for Corps water resources projects and programs—$4.8 billion—it pointed out that Congress’s repeated use of temporary funding through continuing resolutions when lawmakers failed to complete funding legislation prior to the start of a fiscal year was wreaking “havoc on program scheduling.”
A series of dam and levee failures in 2005 and 2006 drew national attention to a part of the American infrastructure that often goes unnoticed—the physical barriers that hold back water. On May 8, 2007, John Moyle, the manager of the dam safety and flood control bureau of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, testified on behalf of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Moyle called attention to several recent incidents, ranging from the failure of the levees in New Orleans during Katrina to the fatal collapse in March 2006 of Hawaii’s Ka Loko (Kaloko) Dam, to bring “into tragic focus the potential consequences of deteriorating and unsafe” or deficient dams.
More than 3,200 dams are currently classified as “unsafe”—meaning that their deficiencies leave them more susceptible to failure—a figure that has increased by as much as 80 percent since 1998.
More than 83,000 dams are listed in the Corps’s National Inventory of Dams (NID), Moyle noted. Nearly 56 percent of NID dams are privately owned, some are owned by state or local governments or private utilities, and fewer than 5 percent are owned by the federal government—although this small number of federal projects includes such high-profile structures as the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams, according to Aging Infrastructure: Dam Safety, a September 2005 report to Congress from the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service (CRS).
As a result, an estimated 86 percent of NID dams are monitored by state regulatory programs, programs that are often understaffed and underfunded, Moyle testified. In some states—Iowa, South Dakota, and Texas, for instance—each full-time dam safety official must monitor more than 1,000 structures; Alabama is the only state without a dam safety program and thus does not have a single full-time employee dedicated to dam safety regulation despite the fact that the state has more than 2,000 dams on the NID list, ASDSO data indicate.
At the same time, state dam safety budgets and federal grants have been declining. Moyle testified that funding for state assistance grants has “been creeping downward for the past five years.” And in one particularly dramatic example, state dam safety budgets nationwide dropped 12 percent in a single year—2003 to 2004—from approximately $33 million to approximately $29 million, according to Dam Safety and Security in the United States: A Progress Report on the National Dam Safety Program, a September 2006 study produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Not surprisingly, the potential problems associated with these dams are growing. The number of “deficient” dams on the NID list increased from 1,818 in 1998 to 3,361 by 2007—an 85 percent increase that “dwarfs the modest gains in the number of state-regulated dams undergoing repairs,” Moyle testified. Deficient dams are structures susceptible to failure as a result of large storms, earthquakes, progressive deterioration, or simply a failure to carry out adequate maintenance, Moyle explained. At least 70 percent of these deficient dams are classified as “high hazard” or “significant hazard potential” structures, meaning that a failure could result in significant property damage or loss of life, Moyle noted.
Even more alarming is the fact that more than 3,200 dams are currently classified as “unsafe”—meaning that their deficiencies leave them more susceptible to failure—a figure that has increased by as much as 80 percent since 1998, Moyle added. Moreover, several states have large numbers of such unsafe dams—Ohio has 825, Pennsylvania 325, and New Jersey 193—noted ASCE’s Roth in his testimony at the same hearing. The actual number of unsafe dams “is potentially much higher,” Roth added, because some states do not report statistics on such dams.
Although few new dams are being constructed, the number of dams that pose a significant hazard is actually growing because development is bringing homes and businesses closer to dams built in what were once remote locations—a situation known as hazard creep, explains James W. Gallagher, P.E., M.ASCE, the chief engineer of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services and a former ASDSO president.
At present, an estimated 30 percent of NID structures have reached their design life of 50 years, and within a decade 1,700 more NID structures will surpass that 50-year mark, the September 2005 CRS report noted. Martin W. McCann, Jr., Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, the director of Stanford University’s National Performance of Dams Program and a consulting professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, has discerned what may be a disturbing trend of increasing dam failures.
During most of the 20th century, the 10-year running average of dam failures by and large stayed below 10 per year, according to data from the Stanford program. But starting in roughly the 1970s, the 10-year averages began to rise, reaching about 20 or even more per year. At least part of this observed increase can be explained by a greater awareness of dam safety issues in the wake of several significant failures during the 1970s, among them the failure of a dam on West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek in 1972 and the failure in 1976 of Idaho’s Teton Dam, McCann notes. While McCann feels that dams under the purview of the federal government are being closely monitored and maintained, “the rest of the [dam] population, which is regulated by the states, is getting old and deteriorated, and as a result we still have an awful lot of work to do.”
More than $36 billion will be needed over the next dozen years to rehabilitate dams across the nation, and $10 billion will be needed just to repair the most critical structures, the ASDSO estimates.
Regarding the nation’s roughly 15,000 mi (24,000 km) of levees, “one of the fundamental problems is that there is a lack of good information about where all the levees are and what level of protection they are supposed to provide,” notes Mark Ogden, P.E., M.ASCE, the ASDSO’s current president. “Right now, there is no good inventory of levees like there is for the National Inventory of Dams.”
The same point was made in a summary prepared for a May 8, 2007, hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. For example, the Corps currently certifies that levees in flood-prone areas can provide the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s required 100-year protection, but these certifications do not “assess the geotechnical conditions of the levees or the hydrological conditions of the areas to be protected,” the summary explained. Such additional assessments could cost as much as $60,000 for each mile of levee, or $100 million just for the 1,600 mi (2,600 km) of levees that protect California’s Central Valley region, according to Corps estimates.
The United States enjoys plentiful water resources—a potentially renewable supply through rainfall alone of approximately 1.4 trillion gal (5.3 trillion L) per day, which exceeds the U.S. Geological Survey’s estimates of daily consumption by a factor of more than 14. America also has reservoirs that can store 280 trillion gal (1,060 trillion L) and lakes and aquifers with even greater storage capacity, according to Freshwater Supply: States’ Views of How Federal Agencies Could Help Them Meet the Challenges of Expected Shortages, a July 2003 GAO report.
But as the title of that report suggests, water managers are nonetheless concerned about potential shortages, a danger that hit home last year when droughts struck nearly every state in the nation. The western and southeastern parts of the United States suffered some of the worst conditions. Drought levels were “extreme” in Southern California and southwestern Arizona as late as mid-November and reached a level of “exceptional” dryness in large swaths of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia during the same period, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, which is based at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Water shortages are possible despite the overall abundance of U.S. water resources because of variability in rainfall across the continental United States as well as the difficulty of transferring water between America’s 352 river basins. These dangers can be reduced, the 2003 GAO report noted, by ensuring that the necessary infrastructure of canals, pipelines, and other facilities is in place. Population growth, global climate change, and other factors also contribute to the problem. Indeed, 36 state water managers surveyed by the GAO anticipated freshwater shortages locally and even statewide within a decade, the report noted.
David G. Mongan, P.E., F.ASCE, ASCE’s president and the president of Whitney, Bailey, Cox & Magnani, LLC, of Baltimore, personally faced drought-induced water restrictions last summer. But he sees the drought itself as only a symptom of the fact that “this country does not have a drinking water supply system to meet the demands that are being placed upon it.”
Mongan believes that the United States needs “adequate federal funding for the expansion of water treatment facilities and to explore for and develop new water sources—from reservoirs to wells—coupled closely with better land use planning and design.”
That need is dramatically demonstrated by the fact that more than 1.7 million people in the United States—more than 670,000 households—still lack full indoor plumbing, the “basic plumbing facilities that most of us have come to take for granted,” according to an April 2004 report, Still Living without the Basics in the 21st Century: Analyzing the Availability of Water and Sanitation Services in the United States, prepared by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, of Washington, D.C. Homes without adequate plumbing are concentrated among the poorest Americans in 10 states—California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arizona, Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina—but can be found anywhere from Alaska (which has the most, at 6.32 percent of all households) to Nebraska (which has the least, at 0.36 percent), the 2004 report stated.
Jack Hoffbuhr, the executive director of the Denver-based American Water Works Association (AWWA), concedes that the nation’s drinking water systems face considerable challenges. But Hoffbuhr’s organization disputes the D– that the drinking water category received in ASCE’s 2005 assessment, in part because of the significant investments that water and wastewater utilities have been making to upgrade their facilities. Indeed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has calculated that more than $1 trillion has been invested in drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities over the past two decades.
“Without significant assistance from the federal government, there’s a point at which it will be impossible to ensure that public health and the environment are being protected.”
Both the EPA and the AWWA acknowledge that much of this water infrastructure is aging and will be reaching the end of its useful life within the next 20 years or so. It was installed in three great phases, Hoffbuhr notes: near the start of the 20th century, in the years following the Great Depression, and soon after World War II. A May 2001 report from the AWWA, Dawn of the Replacement Era: Reinvesting in Drinking Water Infrastructure, examined the capital needs of 20 utilities over the next three decades and projected expenditures of $250 billion for the replacement or repair of drinking water pipes and associated structures. For most large systems, this investment would require rate increases that would charge each household an additional amount ranging from $550 to $2,300 over the next three decades; smaller systems would impose even higher bills, ranging from $1,490 to $6,200 per household over a 20-year period, the report noted.
A 2003 EPA study, Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment: Third Report to Congress, predicted the need for an investment of $276.8 billion to ensure clean drinking water over the next 20 years.
Since 1997 the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund has helped to finance water infrastructure improvements—especially in small and poorer communities—by distributing nearly $13 billion over its first decade. But whereas ASCE’s 2005 infrastructure assessment urged federal appropriations of at least $1 billion a year for the fund, the Bush administration’s FY 2008 budget for the EPA envisions annual appropriations of approximately $841.5 million through 2018.
America’s wastewater system earned a D– in ASCE’s 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure “principally due to the poor physical condition of many of the nation’s 16,000 wastewater treatment systems caused by a lack of investment in plant, equipment, and other capital improvements over the years,” according to a statement that ASCE submitted to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security, and Water Quality. At hearings held on September 19, 2007, to consider how to meet the country’s wastewater infrastructure needs in the 21st century, ASCE noted that many wastewater treatment systems have reached the end of their useful lives. Even a well-maintained system, it noted, generally lasts only 20 years, and many systems today are “plagued by equipment malfunctions and by chronic overflows during major rain storms and heavy snowmelt that, intentionally or not, result in the discharge of raw sewage into U.S. surface waters.”
In August 2004 the EPA’s Report to Congress: Impacts and Control of CSOs and SSOs noted that municipal wastewater systems in 31 states and the District of Columbia were annually discharging into the environment an estimated 850 billion gal (3.2 trillion L) of untreated wastewater and storm water in combined sewer overflows (CSOs). The same report indicated that approximately 19,000 municipal sanitary sewer collection systems were annually discharging up to 10 billion gal (37.8 billion L) of raw sewage in sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). These discharges were causing an estimated 3,500 to 5,500 cases of gastrointestinal illnesses per year just at coastal and Great Lakes beaches, the EPA noted; insufficient data prevented a nationwide calculation of the number of annual illnesses caused by CSOs and SSOs, the EPA added.
To support the nation’s infrastructure for clean water, the federal government has invested more than $80 billion in the construction of publicly owned sewage treatment plants since 1972, the year the Clean Water Act was adopted, ASCE noted in its September 19 statement. In similar fashion, states and local governments have spent billions on water infrastructure projects over the past 50 years—more than $28 billion in local expenditures just in 2004, according to CBO data. Nonetheless, a “severe investment gap” exists between what is being spent and what is needed, a gap that will, according to estimates, be between $300 billion and $500 billion over the next 20 years, ASCE contended in its statement.
Unfortunately, funding has been dropping for the epa’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), which provides federal aid for wastewater infrastructure projects across the country, noted Nancy Stoner, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Water Project, in testimony she provided to the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security, and Water Quality at its September 19 hearing. From nearly $1.4 billion in annual funding during fys 2001 to 2004, CWSRF funding dropped to approximately $900 million by FY 2006 before increasing again to approximately $1.1 billion in FY 2007, Stoner testified. For FY 2008, the Bush administration requested only about $700 million, although Congress has shown a desire to approve higher funding levels, Stoner’s testimony indicated.
Stoner added that, given the current rate of investment in addressing water pollution problems, sewage pollution could reach its highest levels ever by 2025, according to EPA estimates.
The AWWA is of the opinion that Congress should increase CWSRF support to a cumulative $14 billion through FY 2011.
Wastewater concerns usually do not generate a great deal of public interest or attention in budgetary terms until there is a failure—that is, until “a person cannot flush their toilet, wastewater is bubbling up into the streets, or there’s a fish kill” related to wastewater problems, notes Jeannette A. Brown, P.E., BCEE, F.ASCE, the executive director of the Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority, in Stamford, Connecticut, and one of those who helped ASCE to prepare its 2003 update and its 2005 infrastructure assessment. Wastewater professionals work very hard—in many cases with limited resources—to keep their systems operating, Brown notes. “But without significant assistance from the federal government, there’s a point at which it will be impossible to ensure that public health and the environment are being protected. Because of the cost and difficulty of assessing the exact condition of the infrastructure at any one time—especially with older systems—communities could have a major failure. Because the pipes are underground, you just never know,” Brown concludes.
The grades conferred on the infrastructure for handling America’s solid and hazardous waste streams ranged from a C+ for solid waste—the best score earned by any infrastructure category in ASCE’s 2005 assessment—to a D for hazardous waste, although a leading industry figure strongly disputed that rating.
In 2006 the United States generated 251 million tons (228 million metric tons) of municipal solid waste, 32.5 percent of which—82 million tons (74 million metric tons)—was recycled, according to the EPA report Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2006.
The 2006 figures represented an increase in the generation of municipal solid waste from the 205.2 million tons (186 million metric tons) generated in 1990 and a considerable increase in both the tonnages recycled—up from the 33.2 million tons (29 million metric tons) in 1990—and the recycling rate, which was just 16.2 percent in 1990, the EPA figures indicated.
Approximately 31 million tons (28.1 million metric tons) of municipal solid waste—representing 12.5 percent—were incinerated to generate energy at waste combustion facilities that year, and 138 million tons (125 million metric tons) were discarded in landfills, the EPA noted.
Although the number of U.S. landfills has decreased dramatically, from more than 6,300 in 1990 to 1,700 in 2006, the average size of such landfills has increased, ensuring “sufficient” landfill capacity at the national level but also creating some local limitations, the EPA noted.
Bruce J. Parker, the president and chief executive officer of the National Solid Wastes Management Association, of Washington, D.C., says that the nation as a whole has approximately 19 years’ worth of landfill capacity, but he agrees that there are regional variations in that capacity, a problem often remedied by shipping waste from one state to another.
More than 42 million tons (38 million metric tons) of municipal solid waste crossed state lines for disposal in 2005, an 8 percent increase over 2003 shipments, noted a June 2007 CRS report to Congress, Interstate Shipment of Municipal Solid Waste: 2007 Update. Such shipments have “grown significantly since CRS began tracking them in the early 1990s,” increasing 147 percent over the past decade, and now account for more than 25 percent of all municipal solid waste disposed of at landfills or in waste combustion facilities, the report stated.
According to the CRS report, at least 11 states each export more than 1 million tons (907,000 metric tons) of waste annually, and at least 11 states accept that amount. New York and New Jersey are among the largest exporters of municipal solid waste, whereas Pennsylvania is the largest importer, accepting 9.6 million tons (8.7 million metric tons) of waste material from other states in 2005. But an infrastructure problem—namely, the absence of rail service at Pennsylvania landfills—contributed to a 2.7 million ton (2.4 million metric tons) drop in that state’s waste imports between 2001 and 2005, making Pennsylvania the only major importer to experience such a decline in recent years, the report noted.
Today’s healthy market in interstate waste shipments represents an especially positive development for the solid waste industry, Parker says, because in previous years the industry had to fight attempts to ban such commerce through federal or state legislation. But no significant bans are currently under consideration, he reports.
What the industry needs most is a method of expediting the construction and permitting of new landfills, a process that should take about three to four years but often, Parker notes, lasts six or seven owing to government bureaucracy, zoning disputes, and other political issues.
ASCE’s 2005 assessment gave the nation’s hazardous waste cleanup sector a D because of the “sluggish” progress made in cleaning up so-called Superfund and brownfield sites and because of steadily declining federal funding for such efforts.
Brownfield sites are contaminated properties that can be remediated and put to new uses. Superfund sites derive from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which was adopted by Congress in December 1980 and created a trust fund to pay for environmental cleanups. The fund was originally supported by taxes levied on particular petroleum products and chemicals.
Taxes for the Superfund trust fund expired in 1995, and although the fund’s balance remained positive until FY 2003, since then “virtually the entire Superfund program was funded through general Treasury revenues appropriated by Congress,” explained a May 2006 CRS report to Congress, Superfund: Overview and Selected Issues. But that funding has repeatedly fallen short of the levels that a congressionally mandated study had anticipated, the CRS report stated.
That earlier study, embodied in a report delivered to Congress in July 2001 entitled Superfund’s Future: What Will It Cost? was produced by Resources for the Future (RFF), of Washington, D.C. It projected annual Superfund cleanup costs above $1.6 billion through FY 2009. Actual Superfund appropriations, however, “have consistently been several hundred million dollars less than the funding needs projected by RFF,” the CRS determined.
Moreover, owing to inflation, the amounts appropriated are even further from the needs that the RFF study projected, noted Katherine N. Probst, a senior fellow at RFF and the principal author of Superfund’s Future: What Will It Cost? in written testimony she provided at a June 15, 2006, hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health. “The program’s FY 2005 appropriations of $1.2 billion are the equivalent of $820 million in constant 1987 dollars—a 40 percent decrease in purchasing power,” according to Probst, whose testimony included a chart that depicted the declining value of the appropriations since 1987.
The May 2006 CRS report noted that, over the life of the Superfund program, the EPA had placed some 1,500 contaminated sites on the National Priorities List (NPL)—the agency’s official record of the most hazardous sites in the nation—and subsequently had cleaned up slightly more than 300 of those sites and removed them from the list. Unfortunately, “large, complex, and expensive sites—often referred to as ‘megasites’—make up an increasing proportion of the [Superfund] program’s workload,” noted Probst in her 2006 testimony. Moreover, a large number of NPL sites “just beginning to make their way through the ‘Superfund pipeline’ . . still present some kind of current risk to human health or the environment,” Probst stressed.
What is more, “[m]ost Superfund sites are not on the NPL,” the CRS report noted. Indeed, there are more than 20,000 contaminated sites in the nation that need to be cleaned up but are not on the NPL because they fall under the jurisdiction of other federal or state cleanup programs, according to the CRS report and ASCE’s 2005 assessment.
Brownfield redevelopment efforts also suffer from insufficient funding, according to J. Christian Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, New Jersey, who testified on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Mayors at a March 1, 2007, hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials. Bollwage noted that while there are as many as 600,000 potential brownfield properties in the United States, only a third of qualifying applications for redevelopment projects ever receive funding. And although the laws that govern brownfield redevelopments have authorized as much as $150 million annually for assessments, cleanups, job training, and education, Congress generally appropriates only $90 million or so, Bollwage added.
The mayor also cited Recycling America’s Land: A National Report on Brownfields Redevelopment, a May 2006 survey prepared by the Conference of Mayors that noted that—for the first time since 1998, the year the Conference of Mayors began conducting its brownfield surveys—more than 2,500 potential sites around the nation had been “mothballed” because the current owners, owing to environmental concerns, had no intention of redeveloping or selling the sites.
While the nation’s financial commitment to cleaning up hazardous waste sites might have earned a poor grade from ASCE, the infrastructure needed to conduct those cleanups is in much better shape, argues David Case, the executive director of the Environmental Technology Council, a trade association based in Washington, D.C., representing the hazardous waste industry.
“Companies have the equipment, the trained personnel, and the capacity” to conduct Superfund cleanups, brownfield redevelopments, and other private-sector environmental projects, explains Case. But the demand—in the form of public or private funding for such cleanups—isn’t adequate. Indeed, Case believes that “there are more people able to do the cleanups than there are people willing to pay for the cleanup work.”
The hazardous waste remediation industry has invested billions of dollars in acquiring modern equipment, training personnel, and obtaining the necessary permits to conduct environmental cleanups but then has encountered reduced state and federal funding for such programs “across the board for the past eight years,” says Case.
As a result, some remediation firms have gone bankrupt or have mothballed their equipment, and the industry’s capacity has shrunk by as much as a third in recent years, Case estimates. And while there is still more capacity available than money being allocated, even that will not last much longer if funding levels do not increase, Case predicts.
As Otto J. Lynch, M.ASCE, the vice president of Power Line Systems, Inc., of Nixa, Missouri, and the chair of the Electrical Transmission Structures Subcommittee, a body within ASCE’s Structural Engineering Institute, sees it, “Thirty years ago, America had the best electrical utility grid system in the world.” But the problem is that while the country has the same system today, “it’s not the best anymore,” Lynch says. The nation’s electric power grid is aging. Power lines with an expected life of 50 years are still in use 80 years after installation, and wooden poles that should have been replaced after 30 years are rendering as much as 20 additional years of service, Lynch notes. And this system is facing new challenges as the population grows, industrial activity increases, and the demand for power rises.
America will need approximately 258 GW of new electrical capacity by 2030, requiring an estimated total investment of $412 billion (in 2005 dollars), according to a document released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in February 2007 entitled “Annual Energy Outlook 2007 with Projections to 2030.” Without additional resources, many parts of the nation, especially California, the Rocky Mountain states, New England, Texas, the Southwest, and the Midwest, could soon fall below their target capacity margins for power generation and transmission, warned 2007 Long-Term Reliability Assessment, an October 2007 report issued by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), of Princeton, New Jersey. Falling below target capacity margins does not mean that blackouts would occur, explains Mark Lauby, NERC’s manager of reliability assessments. But it does mean that grid operators would be harder pressed to handle such unexpected events as extreme weather conditions or the sudden outage of a major plant, he says.
NERC conducted an online survey last summer of more than 230 bulk power system users, owners, and operators. Ranked first in the technical concerns listed in the survey was the “aging infrastructure and limited new construction.”
Problems with the U.S. power grid have been apparent for most of this decade. In August 2003, for instance, an extensive blackout affected the Midwest and the northeastern part of the country, as well as areas in Canada, plunging approximately 50 million people into darkness from New York City to Toledo, Ohio, and from Ottawa to Windsor, Ontario. Two years later ASCE assigned the nation’s power grid a grade of D, decrying the low level of new investment in transmission lines as well as decreasing expenditures on maintenance.
Although poor maintenance contributed to the 2003 blackout—untrimmed trees in Ohio shorted out a critical power line—the cascading disaster that resulted demonstrates just how delicate an interconnected power system can be, says Lynch. The electrical grid across America relies too heavily on individual power lines and does not possess the needed redundancy, he says. That’s a “perfect example of a bottleneck,” Lynch concludes. “They lose a single line and it caused a catastrophic failure.”
Making matters worse, attempts to provide such redundancy through new infrastructure are often blocked or delayed by political rather than technical obstacles. James Owen, the director of media relations for the Edison Electric Institute, adduces an extreme but illustrative example: During the 1990s, American Electric Power, of Columbus, Ohio, proposed a new transmission line to serve Virginia and West Virginia. Construction of the line, which crossed several areas of federal land, took just two years. But the approval process lasted 14 years.
“People expect more reliable power, but they don’t want to allow a transmission line to be built through their community,” adds Lynch. As a result, politicians and regulators in one state or region too often will not allow the construction of electrical infrastructure to carry power to another state or region for fear of angering their constituents or activist groups.
And another environmental factor has now entered the mix. In October 2007 the Kansas Department of Health and Environment rejected a permit for a coal-fired power plant because of the carbon dioxide emissions that would have resulted, the first time in the United States that a government agency had refused a permit for this reason, according to an October 19 article (“Power Plant Rejected over Carbon Dioxide for First Time”) in the Washington Post. Coal-fired power plants release more than 40 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, which are a leading contributor to global warming, explains the Sierra Club. The permit denial is especially significant because coal-fired power plants currently provide 50 percent of electrical generation in the United States and are expected to account for approximately 54 percent of new capacity added by 2030, according to the EIA.
Although Lynch says that the nation’s electrical distribution system remains in poor condition and would probably earn another D or worse, he sees the transmission side of the system as improving. Thus, if a new ASCE assessment came out today, the transmission side would, he believes, probably earn a grade in the C range.
In a January 2007 speech to the New York City financial community surveying his industry, Thomas R. Kuhn, the president of the Edison Electric Institute, noted that “sustained growth in electricity use . . . is beginning to strain the system.” Therefore, Kuhn declared, “it’s time to invest in America’s electric future” by building more power plants and transmission lines, modernizing and expanding the distribution system, and investing in technologies to further reduce air emissions and increase efficiencies.
In 2005, Kuhn noted, the industry spent $46.5 billion on capital expenditures, the first significant increase since 2001. Capital spending for 2006 was expected to increase by more than 30 percent, to nearly $60 billion, and further investments are anticipated within the next several years, he added.
In particular, the industry invested a record $5.8 billion in the transmission grid during 2005, which represents an 18 percent increase over 2004 investments, explained David K. Owens, who also spoke at the January 2007 gathering in New York City and is the Edison Electric Institute’s executive vice president for business operations. By 2009 the industry plans to invest another $31.5 billion in the transmission system and will add some 13,000 mi (21,000 km) of transmission lines in the 230 kV range or higher by 2015, Owens predicted.
ASCE’s 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure assigned a D to the physical condition of America’s public schools—kindergarten through grade 12—and noted that the projected costs of improving the nation’s school facilities varied widely. A U.S. Department of Education report, Condition of America’s Public School Facilities: 1999, placed the price tag at nearly $127 billion. But just a year later, the National Education Association, based in Washington, D.C., increased that amount to more than $268 billion in a report it issued in 2000, Modernizing Our Schools: What Will it Cost?
As ASCE noted in 2005, “getting a clear nationwide picture of K–12 public education facilities is difficult.”
Little has changed since then. “Currently, there is no reliable measure of how much money is needed to provide all children with adequate public school facilities,” noted an October 2006 report, Growth and Disparity: A Decade of U.S. Public School Construction, issued by Building Education Success Together, an initiative of the 21st Century School Fund, of Washington, D.C. “No public agency is monitoring school conditions nationally,” the report said, “and many states do not have a way to evaluate the extent or level of need at the state level.”
U.S. school districts paid a “staggering” $600 billion in capital outlays from 1995 through 2004, the 2006 report noted, including $179 billion to expand or upgrade existing schools and $124 billion to construct more than 12,400 new schools either to meet growth in enrollment or because existing schools were “beyond repair.”
But those outlays were not enough to provide adequate facilities for every student, and too often school districts in which a majority of residents were poor or from minority groups received the lowest investments, the report concluded.
A December 2006 report, Building Minds, Minding Buildings, from the American Federation of Teachers, of Washington, D.C., also noted that nearly 1,000 teachers and school staff members in a recent survey it conducted “reported such persistent problems as . . . fallen ceiling tiles, poor lighting . . . crumbling exterior walls, asbestos, severely overcrowded classrooms and hallways, freezing rooms in winter, and extreme heat in the summer.” And although maintenance and operations spending by school districts increased between 2006 and 2007, the April 2007 issue of the magazine American School & University noted with dismay that after “years of historic low expenditures . . . the amount is still significantly less than what was spent 20 years ago.”
ASCE’s 2005 assessment also included the nation’s public parks and recreation facilities. Noting that many of America’s parks, beaches, and recreational harbors “are falling into a state of disrepair,” ASCE assigned these tourism and economic development resources a grade of C–. The National Park Service (NPS), for example, had a maintenance backlog of $6.1 billion for its facilities and had no formal method for evaluating the conditions of its assets.
By 2007 the backlog of maintenance and preservation needs had reached $7.8 billion, according to testimony provided by Thomas C. Kiernan, the president of the National Parks Conservation Association, of Washington, D.C., at an August 2 hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.
The NPS director, Fran P. Mainella, offered a more positive outlook in a March 2, 2006, statement to the same House subcommittee. Mainella noted that the Bush administration had invested a total of $5.6 billion for NPS deferred maintenance from FY 2002 to FY 2007. Moreover, the NPS was working to complete a prioritization of its assets using an “innovative asset management program focused on developing, for the first time, a comprehensive inventory and condition assessment of the agency’s asset base, which includes everything from nearly 18,000 buildings to approximately 15,000 miles of paved and unpaved roads,” according to Mainella’s statement.
At the same time, a May 2006 report from the National Parks Conservation Association, The U.S. National Park System: An Economic Asset at Risk, warned that “the U.S. Congress is jeopardizing this valuable asset by not adequately funding the National Park Service.” The maintenance backlog and an annual “operating shortfall of $800 million” had led to a deepening fiscal crisis confronting the parks as “important park functions go without, park infrastructure decays, natural ecosystems are overrun with exotic species, historical treasures [are] inadequately preserved, and public safety is jeopardized,” the report charged.
In developing the National Infrastructure Protection Plan in 2006, the Department of Homeland Security clearly defined the roles and responsibilities of government, private industry, nongovernmental agencies, and tribal authorities in protecting critical facets of the nation’s infrastructure and other key resources.
Security was added as a category in ASCE’s 2005 assessment but received an “incomplete,” in part because the information needed to accurately assess the security needs of the nation’s critical infrastructure was not readily available to engineering professionals. The uncertain status of the nation’s security remains a problem three years later, as evidenced by the November 15, 2007, testimony provided to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform by Gregory D. Kutz, the GAO’s managing director, and John W. Cooney, the organization’s assistant director of forensic audits and special investigations. Kutz and Cooney discussed a series of covert tests that the GAO conducted in March, May, and June of 2007 at a “nonrepresentative” sample of airports across the country.
Working together, two GAO investigators were able to bring concealed bomb-making components through airport checkpoints and onto planes undetected. In these tests the investigators underwent secondary searches and were even patted down, but the concealed items were not discovered, Kutz and Cooney reported. In one test, a transportation security officer prohibited the investigators from carrying through a checkpoint an unlabeled bottle of medicated shampoo, but a prohibited liquid item that can be used as a component in a simple explosive went undetected.
For FY 2008, the Bush administration proposed a Department of Homeland Security budget of nearly $43.4 billion, up from the $42.8 billion enacted in FY 2007 and the $40.4 billion enacted in FY 2006, according to a document from that department entitled “Budget-in-Brief: Fiscal Year 2008.” Recent security achievements highlighted in the document included increased inspections of cargo containers unloaded at U.S. seaports (82 percent inspected in FY 2006, compared with 48 percent in FY 2004) and “significantly” more buffer zone protection plans for chemical facilities (58 percent in FY 2006, compared with just 18 percent in FY 2005).
What is more, in developing the National Infrastructure Protection Plan in 2006, the Department of Homeland Security clearly defined the roles and responsibilities of government, private industry, nongovernmental agencies, and tribal authorities in protecting critical facets of the nation’s infrastructure and other key resources.
At the same time, a $1.2-billion homeland security plan to deploy an advanced type of radiation detection machine to screen trucks, cars, and cargo containers at key sites along the nation’s borders had to be put on hold for as much as a year because of questions about the equipment’s effectiveness, noted a November 20 article (“Radiation Detectors for Border Are Delayed Again”) in the Washington Post.
Furthermore, the growth in security spending in the United States has been “very modest” in comparison with the nation’s overall resources, according to the article “What Has Homeland Security Cost? An Assessment: 2001–2005,” which appeared in the February 2007 issue of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Current Issues in Economics and Finance. Overall spending on homeland security issues from both public and private resources increased from $56 billion in 2001 to $99.5 billion in 2005, the article noted. But in terms of the nation’s gdp, total spending on homeland security rose just 0.25 percent during that period. Moreover, the report examined only the costs, not the effectiveness, of security measures. As in 2005, the answer to that question remains incomplete.
The neglect of America’s infrastructure presents the nation with an enormous challenge, but it is not a new one. Similar concerns were voiced as far back as 1981 in a report entitled America in Ruins. Its authors were Pat Choate, Ph.D., an economist who in 1996 was Ross Perot’s running mate, and Susan M. Walter, an executive at General Electric who had served as an associate director of the Council of State Planning Agencies, of Washington, D.C.
With eerie symmetry, Choate and Walter’s warnings from 1981 could be repeated verbatim today: “America’s public facilities are wearing out faster than they are being replaced. . . . The United States is seriously underinvesting in public infrastructure . . . the maintenance of a growing number of national and local public facilities has been deferred. Replacement and rehabilitation of obsolescent public works have been postponed.”
The fact that the nation faces problems so similar more than a quarter of a century later highlights the difficult job ahead. Henry J. Hatch, P.E., Hon.M.ASCE, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who led the Corps of Engineers from 1988 to 1992 and is now the at-large director of ASCE’s Board of Direction, notes that he has recently heard “a lot of discussion about the condition of the infrastructure—but not too much enlightening discussion about what to do about it.”
Deciding what to do “is an extremely complex issue because there are so many actors—public- and private-sector, local, state, and federal—and so many different sectors of what we refer to as the nation’s infrastructure” that “you could even use the pejorative ‘fragmented’ to describe the situation,” says Hatch. Moreover, “the federal government’s hand in the infrastructure and its condition is a lot smaller than a lot of people would care to appreciate,” he adds, noting that 85 to 90 percent of what we consider America’s infrastructure is privately owned, the railroads and most of the power industry being prime examples.
Although much of that private ownership is regulated by public authorities, Hatch believes that such regulations can actually impede the ability of privately held firms to improve the condition of their facilities. In the case of electric utilities, for instance, “the public generally wants low rates and so that’s what state regulators push for,” even if that leaves the utilities without the revenue necessary to maintain and upgrade their equipment, Hatch notes.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Flynn sees a similar problem and suggests that government at all levels could work better with the private sector to determine why the infrastructure is not being adequately maintained. Lawmakers could then develop incentives to encourage private firms to make the investments necessary to keep critical parts of the infrastructure operating during disasters or simply in response to increased demands. For example, the nation’s tax laws could help the rail industry invest in additional switches and other equipment to handle increased freight traffic or could provide incentives for power companies to install spare transformer units for peak demand, says Flynn.
In addition to issuing its infrastructure assessments, ASCE has also worked extensively on Capitol Hill to keep America’s infrastructure needs at the forefront of the nation’s legislative agenda. In March 2007 it outlined a legislative strategy, Raising the Grades: Small Steps for Big Improvements in America’s Failing Infrastructure, that promotes actions ranging from establishing a national commission on the infrastructure to instituting a national levee safety program. The plan also seeks to reauthorize or ensure funding for federal surface transportation programs, aviation programs, brownfield redevelopments, water quality measures, dam repair and rehabilitation, and inland waterways, among other concerns.
On the very day that the Minneapolis bridge collapsed—and in the months that followed—lawmakers and regulators in Washington, D.C., began to take action on several of these measures to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure.
With tragic irony, legislation to create an independent body that would be called the National Infrastructure Bank was introduced in the Senate on August 1 just hours before the I-35W bridge tumbled into the Mississippi. (See “National Infrastructure Bank Legislation Introduced in Congress,” Civil Engineering, September 2007, page 10.) The proposal—S. 1926, introduced by Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut)—was modeled on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and is designed to help fund projects that potentially involve a federal investment of $75 million or more. The infrastructure bank would consider projects in such categories as mass transit, public housing, bridges, roads, drinking water systems, and wastewater systems and would evaluate each proposal on the basis of its potential to spur economic growth and confer environmental benefits. A road or bridge project, for instance, would have to help reduce traffic congestion or improve mobility in order to qualify for support. S. 1926 and its companion bill in the House—H.R. 3401, introduced by Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota)—were both in the committee stage at press time.
On August 2, however, the Senate did unanimously pass another infrastructure-related measure—S. 775, the National Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2007—which had been introduced in March 2007 by Senator Tom Carper (D-Delaware) and eight cosponsors. The bill would establish a national commission to analyze the age, condition, maintenance needs, investment requirements, and other aspects of the nation’s infrastructure. By February 2009, the commission would make recommendations for federal priorities in this area and would submit a report detailing the legislation that would be needed over the next 5, 15, 30, and 50 years. Two companion measures in the House—H.R. 3398, introduced by Ellison, and H.R. 3538, introduced by Representative Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota)—were still in the committee stage at press time.
On August 8 Oberstar presented a plan that, among other goals, would provide a dedicated source of funding to repair, rehabilitate, or replace aging or failing bridges by temporarily increasing the federal fuel tax by 5 cents a gallon, which would raise an estimated $25 billion over three years. This proposal was eventually introduced on October 31 as H.R. 3999, the National Highway Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act of 2007. (See “House Members, Administration Debate Bridge Safety Proposal,” Civil Engineering, October 2007, page 10.)
On September 24 NRG Energy, of Princeton, New Jersey, sent the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the first license application for a new nuclear power plant in the United States in nearly 30 years. The application was for two nuclear power units that NRG plans to construct in southern Texas by 2015. Nationwide, the nuclear power industry is expected to increase its capacity from 100 GW in 2005 to more than 112 GW by 2030, according to the EIA report Annual Energy Outlook 2007.
On October 2 the U.S. Department of Energy designated the first of what are to be called national interest electric transmission corridors. One was for the Middle Atlantic region and one was for the Southwest, and they are designed essentially to overrule local opposition to new power lines. Under this transmission corridor plan, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will be able to issue permits for and authorize the construction of certain new transmission facilities if the local regulatory agency has not granted its approval within one year of an application. The designations apply to “geographic areas where consumers are adversely affected by transmission capacity constraints or congestion” and will apply only to transmission projects that “significantly reduce congestion,” according the Department of Energy’s announcement.
The Middle Atlantic corridor consists of the District of Columbia, the entire state of New Jersey, and certain counties in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. The corridor in the Southwest comprises certain counties in California and Arizona.
On October 29 the House passed H.R. 3224, the Dam Rehabilitation and Repair Act of 2007, which will provide more than $200 million over five years for the repair, rehabilitation, or removal of publicly owned dams that are structurally deficient and pose an unacceptable risk to public safety. Decisions will be based on a risk-based priority system. The bill was introduced by Representative John T. Salazar (D-Colorado), and a similar measure—S. 2238, introduced by Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka (D-Hawaii)—is being considered in the Senate. (See “Dam Rehabilitation Bill Easily Passes in House,” Civil Engineering, December 2007, page 10.) Although the measure represents only a “modest amount of money” toward the billions of dollars needed to fix all unsafe dams in the nation, it will be a good first step—if it becomes law—in creating a dedicated funding source for dam safety similar to that in other federal infrastructure funding programs, notes Brad Iarossi, P.E., M.ASCE, the ASDSO’s legislative director and a contributor to four of ASCE’s “report cards.”
On November 9 Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, which will provide $23 billion to help fund hundreds of Corps of Engineers projects involving dams, levees, harbors, channels, the restoration of coastal wetlands and the Florida Everglades, and improvements to navigation on the Mississippi. The measure will also support the construction or upgrading of wastewater treatment facilities around the nation and will establish a national committee on levee safety that will be charged with developing a levee safety program and creating an inventory of the nation’s levees.
But the controversy and challenges that some of these initial steps engendered certainly do not bode well for rapid progress in the future.
It took Congress nearly eight years to pass the water resources bill—the last such measure being adopted in 2000—and even after all that time the 2007 bill was vetoed by President Bush. Congress then had to override the veto, something that hadn’t happened since 1998. (See “Document and Legislation Renew Debate over Clean Water Act’s Reach,” Civil Engineering, August 2007, page 10.)
It took Congress nearly eight years to pass the water resources bill—the last such measure being adopted in 2000—and even after all that time the 2007 bill was vetoed by President Bush. Congress then had to override the veto, something that hadn’t happened since 1998.
Oberstar’s plan to pay for repairing or replacing structurally deficient bridges by increasing the federal fuel tax met stiff opposition from the White House and the U.S. DOT’s Peters, who argued that congressional misspending, especially the 6,000 special project “earmarks” that had been attached to SAFETEA-LU, were the real obstacle to bridge improvements. Ironically, Oberstar banned earmarks in his bridge repair proposal. Ultimately the fuel tax increase was dropped from the bridge repair bill, paring its proposed spending from $25 billion over three years to just $2 billion over two years when it was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on October 31; at press time, no companion bill had been introduced in the Senate.
Meanwhile, the Department of Energy’s plan to demarcate national interest electric transmission corridors to facilitate the construction of transmission projects impeded by lawsuits and regulatory hurdles was put on hold in early December following the threat of lawsuits from environmental activists as well as from state governments that believe Washington is usurping their regulatory powers. Similar disputes are in store as the nation considers ways to upgrade and enhance its aviation system.
The Air Transport Association (ATA), a trade group based in Washington, D.C., that represents the airline industry, sees adoption of NextGen as the most important step in boosting capacity at U.S. airports to meet both current and future demand, explains Elizabeth Merida, the ata’s manager of communications. “Some folks say we need more runways or air traffic controllers, but at the end of the day ata believes that we need to move to this satellite-based digital system that relies on twenty-first-century technologies so that we can increase the capacities in the skies and near our airports to accommodate the number of planes that we’re seeing in the system already,” says Merida.
Others recognize the advantages of the NextGen concept but predict that more concrete solutions—literally—will be required. “Without more runways, taxiways, ramps, and gates—in a word, pavement—it won’t matter what we do in the airspace to increase capacity,” noted Forrey, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association president, in his congressional testimony.
One of the main objectives of NextGen is to increase the air transportation system’s capacity by “a factor of two or three,” notes Amedeo R. Odoni, Ph.D., a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But Odoni believes it will be extremely difficult to increase the capacity of the existing airport system by more than 20 to 30 percent. To double the capacity of a single runway at a commercial airport from the current 40 to 50 aircraft per hour, “one would need to have a landing or a takeoff roughly every forty seconds, which would place an enormous strain on safety,” Odoni says. Indeed, increased congestion at airports was cited as a possible safety problem in a November 20, 2007, GAO report, Aviation Runway and Ramp Safety: Sustained Efforts to Address Leadership, Technology, and Other Challenges Needed to Reduce Accidents and Incidents.
There is no single solution to America’s air traffic mess, Odoni warns. Instead, he recommends demand management measures—congestion pricing at the busiest airports, for example—as incentives for some airlines to avoid peak traffic periods. Of even greater importance, Odoni and others stress the need for constructing as many new and longer runways as possible at existing facilities and enhancing and expanding satellite airports. Constructing new airports would be even better, but that is seen as unlikely. Indeed, the United States constructs a new major airport only about once every decade, notes W.K. Dickson’s Slater.
Satellite airports are small, regional airports—sometimes former military sites—that are located relatively close to larger metropolitan airports and can be used as an alternative to the main airport in serving a metropolitan area, explains Lance Sherry, Ph.D., the executive director of George Mason University’s Center for Air Transportation Systems Research. This capability informed the recent decision by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the Newark Liberty, John F. Kennedy, and LaGuardia airports, to purchase the operating lease at Stewart International Airport, which is near Newburgh, New York, and is approximately 70 mi (113 km) north of the New York metropolitan area, says Sherry. A former U.S. Air Force base, Stewart is located on 2,400 acres (970 ha) of “underutilized land,” and it served only about 300,000 passengers in 2006, noted the Port Authority in announcing the $78.5-million deal in January 2007. By comparison, the 680 acre (275 ha) LaGuardia handled 26 million passengers in 2006.
What the aviation system itself needs is a national air transportation strategic plan. Because airports are locally or at most regionally owned and operated, their managers rarely consider themselves part of America’s massive aviation network; nor do they understand how their actions, for example, adding or postponing new capacity, can affect other airports across the country.
As Anthony E. Shorris, the Port Authority’s executive director, explained: “Through a measured program of significant investments, the Port Authority will be able to . . . turn that sleepy, underutilized facility into a dynamic transportation hub that will, along with our other investments in our regional airport system, allow us to meet the incredible growth in demand for air travel. We expect Stewart will play a significant role in an integrated airport system that helps JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia meet the challenges ahead.”
The Port Authority will need to improve the runways and taxiways at Stewart, bring the terminal into compliance with security and environmental requirements, and, most important of all, develop a method of efficiently moving passengers between Stewart and the New York metropolitan area to make the plan work, says Sherry. “My understanding is that the absence of an intermodal ground transportation system—highways and rail—is a disincentive for passengers to use [Stewart] to its fullest extent,” he notes.
What the aviation system itself needs is a national air transportation strategic plan, adds Sherry. Because airports are locally or at most regionally owned and operated, their managers rarely consider themselves part of America’s massive aviation network; nor do they understand how their actions, for example, adding or postponing new capacity, can affect other airports across the country.
“In a nutshell, the problem we found is that nobody’s in charge of the overall system,” says Sherry, referring to the work done by the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research. “Each of the individual actors or stakeholders is incentivized to maximize their own objectives. Sometimes they’re maximizing them in ways that reinforce each other and other times they’re fighting against each other, so the overall system is fundamentally broken.”
Since the individual aviation stakeholders are not adjusting for the good of the overall system, Sherry anticipates that the federal government will eventually impose capacity limits at the biggest airports and auction off the takeoff and landing slots. Such an approach would, in turn, encourage airlines to switch back to larger aircraft—rather than to regional jets with 50 to 90 seats—because they would be able to serve the same number of passengers with fewer flights. “This is a very efficient way to resolve the issue of reliability of service and delays and to increase the capacity of the air transportation system until additional infrastructure is available,” he explains.
The United States would also do well to consider its drinking water and wastewater infrastructure as one integrated system rather than as separate industries, urges Glen Daigger, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, a senior vice president and the chief technology officer of CH2M HILL in Parker, Colorado, as well as a senior vice president and board member of the London-based International Water Association.
“We tend to make a mistake by separating water and wastewater issues,” explains Daigger, who notes that the integration he advocates has been used in Southern California to “significantly reduce the net amount of water needed” through measures such as dual distribution systems, which transport reclaimed water from treatment plants to irrigation or industrial sites.
California’s successful efforts to require the use of reclaimed water for nonpotable purposes date back to 1972 and have led to the adoption of similar regulations by other states, noted Daniel A. Okun, Ph.D., P.E., Hon.M.ASCE, the Kenan Professor of Environmental Engineering (emeritus) at the University of North Carolina, in a paper he wrote in 1996 entitled “A History of Nonpotable Water Reuse through Dual Distribution Systems.”
Integration measures require treating wastewater not for discharge but to meet the various uses of the reclaimed water, notes Daigger. They could also involve locating future treatment facilities closer to the users of the reclaimed water, a practice that would require less piping and thus would reduce the size and cost of constructing and maintaining the underground portions of the system.
But there is a somewhat dark cloud to this silver lining. Increased reuse of water would reduce the demands placed on a water system’s infrastructure, but the volume of water moving through the wastewater portion also would be reduced, thus boosting the concentrations of pollutants and raising the costs of treating the effluent. If a water utility could not then raise its rates accordingly, it could end up with less money available to maintain the system, Daigger concludes.
Regarding other water infrastructure concerns, Exponent’s Izzo stresses the need for a watershed-based approach to the nation’s navigable waterways. Such an approach would take into account all the uses of a river and its waters, from the locks and the drinking water systems to any power plants or other industrial facilities along the river, and would include the surrounding wetlands as well as sediment management issues. As Izzo explains, “A lot of communities take their drinking water from the same river that is used for navigation, and the same river that we have flood control on, and if you don’t have a watershed approach, then it is very possible that you will design facilities that adversely affect your neighbor up[stream] and downstream.”
While combining water-related issues is one way to address certain infrastructure problems, another category—the nation’s highways—might benefit from dividing the two major streams of traffic, cars and trucks.
That’s the idea behind the American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s Critical Commerce Corridor (3C) program, introduced in 2006, which envisions “a seamless network that will run nationwide that separates freight traffic from other traffic,” says Solsby, who, as noted earlier, is the association’s director of public affairs. Envisioned as a 25-year national commitment, the 3C plan will involve “a nationwide network of truck-only lanes along separate corridors that could in many cases run parallel to, above, or adjacent, or even under the existing interstate and national highway system corridors,” Solsby explains.
The cost of the 3C network would be separated from other highway construction and the core federal highway programs and would instead rely on new freight-based user fees or tolls.
Solsby adds, “It is important to look at where the largest need is going to come from and how we can start to address this need—not just viewing commercial, passenger, and freight traffic as though different users have similar needs.”
New road construction is also advocated by consultant Pisarski, especially the construction of additional beltways around major metropolitan areas. Consider what’s happening in China, Pisarski urges, where in Beijing “they’ve got five or six beltways that they built in the last ten to fifteen years while we’re still talking about it.”
In the United States, there “are now twelve areas over five million in population with a third of the nation’s population,” and these areas “may need to consider two or three beltways as part of an effective system based on hub and spoke concepts,” noted Pisarski in testimony he provided to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit on January 24, 2007.
To improve America’s bridges, the suggestions range from the immediate need to conduct better inspections to the far-reaching concept of designing new bridges specifically with inspections in mind. In testimony on bridge safety he provided to the House Committee on Science and Technology on September 19, 2007, Kevin Womack, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Utah State University and the chair of ASCE’s Transportation Policy Committee, stressed that visual inspections would be “less subjective” if they were all performed by licensed professional engineers, something he acknowledged would be difficult given the current shortage of civil engineers in the transportation field. Womack also recommended the development of new inspection procedures for bridges that would combine visual inspections with load testing and instrument monitoring.
Malcolm Kerley, P.E., the chief engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation and the chair of AASHTO’s Subcommittee on Bridges and Structures, recognizes the potential benefits of new inspection technology but points out that “for every technology you might want to utilize, somebody is going to have to read the data, be able to interpret the data . . . and there is a cost associated with that.”
The nation must also focus more funds on performing routine maintenance on bridges. That was the argument expressed in an August 13 op-ed piece (“Catch Me, I’m Falling”) in the New York Times by Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E., M.ASCE, who spent 20 years as an engineer with the New York City Department of Transportation before starting his own engineering consultancy, Sam Schwartz, L.L.C. The United States spends only a fraction, proportionately, of what other countries spend on infrastructure maintenance because the federal funds for bridges “can primarily be used on expensive capital improvements or new bridges but not for the ‘mop and pail’ work the bridges really need,” Schwartz wrote, even though “routine maintenance would have cost much less.” For example, New York City was spending $400 million a year in the late 1980s to wholly or partially replace bridges even though the city’s 840 structures “could be maintained in near pristine condition for $150 million annually,” Schwartz wrote, citing a 1989 study he had commissioned.
Looking ahead, David Schulz, P.E., M.ASCE, who was the director of Northwestern University’s Infrastructure Technology Institute and an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at the university and was interviewed last October shortly before his death, stressed the need to design bridges for easier inspection. “We need to design with the notion that there will be inspectors crawling over this bridge every year or two for the next fifty or sixty years,” noted Schulz. The design must also allow these inspectors “to get access to the key pieces of this bridge to be able to examine them but also to apply certain sensors to find out what’s going on,” he concluded.
Engineers must also design structures with greater redundancy in mind, an approach that was not followed in the case of the Minneapolis bridge and “still isn’t being used as much as it should be,” notes Jorg O. Osterberg, Ph.D., P.E., Hon.M.ASCE. Osterberg’s paper “Necessary Redundancy in Geotechnical Engineering” was published in the November 1989 issue of ASCE’s Journal of Geotechnical Engineering, and although it focused on geotechnical issues, the principles of redundancy apply to all aspects of civil engineering and all types of structures, he explained in an interview for this article.
Redundancy should either be designed into every structure or at least be introduced by retrofitting existing structures, Osterberg stressed. He notes that any sort of bridge could be so retrofitted, for example, with additional supports, but points out that making comparable improvements to, say, a large dam would be more difficult because of the overall size and height of the structure. Osterberg adds that the concept of redundancy, which he feels is still not widely taught in engineering schools, involves not only physical elements but also such measures as making sure that a competent engineer double-checks all details of a project rather than leaving such work to the construction contractor.
Aligned with the issue of redundancy is the concept of resiliency, that is, being better prepared for and more able to respond to natural or man-made catastrophes. As Flynn argues in The Edge of Disaster, this is the key to protecting the nation’s “brittle” infrastructure. Flynn also ties together the nation’s security needs with the need to better fund the upkeep and regular maintenance of bridges, dams, and other critical infrastructure elements. “The more brittle our infrastructure is, the more attractive it would be for adversaries to strike,” Flynn explains, noting that poor maintenance is one of the primary causes of brittleness whether the structure is aging or relatively new.
But if potential terrorists discovered that their plans for mass casualties, mass destruction, and mass chaos were successfully blocked at every turn because the nation had, say, better maintained its flood protection systems or constructed more power lines to keep the lights on if one part of the system failed, and if the nation’s emergency management and public health systems were properly funded and adequately staffed, “then the [terrorists’] incentive for engaging in that kind of activity on U.S. soil goes away,” Flynn concludes.
Both Izzo and Whitney, Bailey, Cox & Magnani’s Mongan stress the need for engineers to make greater use of risk analysis and risk assessment techniques in their infrastructure designs, as outlined in ASCE’s Policy 437 (“Risk Management”). As Izzo explains, the cost-benefit approach currently used to fund many infrastructure projects tends to focus too much on the potential economic benefits of certain efforts. But that approach, he notes, gives short shrift to “other projects where you don’t have that kind of return [on investment] . . . but you have a much higher risk of damage.”
Risk management techniques can be especially helpful in incorporating safety factors into decisions about infrastructure projects, especially water projects, “so you don’t have to turn everything into just dollars and cents,” notes Lewis E. Link, Ph.D., M.ASCE, a senior research engineer and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland. Link also helped moderate a session on risk management issues at a January 2007 conference (“The Challenges of Change: Applying Innovation and Knowledge to Solve the Nation’s Infrastructure Challenges”) sponsored by ASCE’s Civil Engineering Forum for Innovation.
“Risk management is a tool that can be very effective when used in the beginning of the life cycle of an infrastructure to determine what is necessary to achieve some level of capability—to deal with a hazard like hurricanes or earthquakes or whatever,” explains Link. “It’s also a way to allow you to monitor the changes in the condition of the infrastructure . . . focusing on the complete picture of the structure itself and the consequences of the structure not performing.”
Under the nation’s current approach to budgeting infrastructure expenditures, the Louisiana Purchase would have appeared as a short-term expense in 1803 in the federal budget because of the debt issued to Napoleonic France and the reduction in America’s customs income that resulted.
Given the extent of the nation’s vast infrastructure and the magnitude of the repairs or replacements needed, perhaps the toughest job of all is keeping the problem from seeming too overwhelming for anyone to try to tackle.
Indeed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Kavinoky says she sometimes feels that the nation’s infrastructure problems are so imposing that it might be easier to work on “an issue that might be solvable—like Social Security,” which has long been considered one of the most intractable problems in American politics. But Kavinoky’s point is that while the Social Security program primarily needs additional revenue, the problems with the nation’s infrastructure are so formidable and multifaceted that “you can’t just write a check” to fix them all, she explains.
Instead, a great deal of effort must be undertaken, often in advance, before genuine improvements can even begin—whether it is the intellectual work of designing foundations and structures, the physical work of surveying and preparing a site for new construction, or the political and societal work of making the case to the politicians and the public on the need for a new project.
“Because of its impact on our health, quality of life, and economic well-being, the infrastructure is really a social issue just like education, Medicare and Medicaid, and other health issues,” explains ASCE’s Roth. “Yet we don’t see [the infrastructure] in that perspective even though it has to compete with those other social issues for money.”
Consider the problem of highway congestion. Efforts to maintain and improve the nation’s roads are unlikely to receive the necessary funding “until we connect the DOTs and we see that reducing congestion also reduces air pollution, which helps our health,” explains Roth. Reducing congestion “will also improve the quality of family life as well,” he notes. “It’s estimated that parents in urban areas lose an hour or two of quality time with their children every day because of the extra time that they spend in traffic. So the infrastructure has a tremendous impact on social issues in our country.”
Roth also points out that the seemingly staggering sum of $1.6 trillion—which ASCE’s 2005 assessment put as the cost of improving the nation’s infrastructure over five years—actually requires only $800 billion in what the government considers “new” money. “We’re already committed to spending about eight hundred billion dollars on the infrastructure over a five-year period,” Roth explains. So what the 2005 report really meant was that the nation needs to spend an additional $800 billion over five years, or $160 billion a year—a much more achievable figure given the size of the nation’s economy, he notes.
Roth adds that the nation needs to consider infrastructure spending as “a real investment in our future, an investment in our quality of life, in our health and economic well-being.”
Unfortunately, government spending on the infrastructure, especially at the federal level, is too often viewed as a burden that adds to the nation’s short-term deficit rather than as an investment in the nation’s future, notes Charles Dowding, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. “Public infrastructure expenditures have a predominant local, statewide but not national effect,” Dowding explains. “For instance, the Big Dig in Boston has a huge effect on the Boston metropolitan area, but it isn’t going to affect Chicago much.” Thus it can be difficult to persuade lawmakers from one district or state to support projects in other regions that they don’t see as benefiting their own constituents, Dowding says.
Indeed, under the nation’s current approach to budgeting infrastructure expenditures, the Louisiana Purchase would have appeared as a short-term expense in 1803 in the federal budget because of the debt issued to Napoleonic France and the reduction in America’s customs income that resulted. Such an approach to accounting would have obscured what the acquisition in fact was—“probably the best deal we’ve ever made in the history of this country,” explains Felix G. Rohatyn, a New York City–based investment banker and financial adviser, a former U.S. ambassador to France, and a current trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, of Washington, D.C. Rohatyn has urged the United States to create an entity similar to the European Investment Bank, which is headquartered in Luxembourg and has funded such projects as Europe’s high-speed rail network. A U.S. version of this institution could, he notes, issue bonds with maturities of up to 50 years to finance infrastructure projects.
Rohatyn and others have also called upon the United States to create a formal capital budget for infrastructure spending, an accounting tool that many business and state governments already use for their long-term investments. At present, infrastructure spending often gets crowded out by “other pressing expenditures that are more day to day” in the federal government’s annual budgetary fights, notes the New America Foundation’s Schwenninger, who wrote about the need for a capital budget in Ten Big Ideas for a New America, a report issued by that group in February 2007. But a capital budget would end these battles over distinguishing a capital expenditure from an operating expense and enable the nation to spread the costs of capital improvements over time rather than delay such investments to keep within annual budgetary limits, Schwenninger explains.
Many organizations involved in the infrastructure debate, among them the traditionally tax-averse U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that it is time to consider increasing the nation’s fuel tax to fund infrastructure improvements. Such an increase represents a necessary user fee, not a tax increase per se, Kavinoky contends.
Others argue that the problem consists not in the amounts collected through such user fees as the highway fuel tax and airport landing fees but rather in the fact that such fees punish and reward the wrong users. The highway fuel tax, for instance, is more expensive for trucks having many axles because those vehicles are less fuel efficient, even though the weight of a five-axle truck is better distributed and thus does less damage to the road surface than does the weight of a two-axle truck, explains Clifford Winston, Ph.D., an economist and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, of Washington, D.C. “The gas tax is perverse, actually, because you get better fuel economy if you have fewer axles,” Winston says. “So it is actually just giving the completely wrong incentive.”
Likewise, airport landing fees are based on aircraft weight, but weight has nothing to do with the congestion problems plaguing the nation’s air travel system, says Winston. Indeed, the smaller, lighter aircraft can delay traffic as much, if not more, than a big plane does. So what Winston suggests is some sort of axle-based tax for highways and an airport congestion–based fee for both takeoffs and landings.
Modern technology also makes it possible to consider some form of congestion pricing for highways wherein the price is a function of how crowded the road is at a given time as well as pricing based on the miles that a particular vehicle is driven, notes Martin Wachs, Ph.D., M.ASCE, the director of the Rand Corporation’s Transportation, Space, and Technology Program, which is based in Santa Monica, California. Rand is conducting research regarding the infrastructure and supply chains for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups.
The nation also needs to do a better job of setting priorities for infrastructure spending, contends Robert Puentes, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. For example, much federal transportation funding today is still allocated under state-focused mechanisms that were devised 50 years ago to finance the interstate highway system. But today “most of our transportation challenges are concentrated in the largest metropolitan regions,” says Puentes.
Congestion is disproportionately a problem in the largest metropolitan regions, as is the demand or need for mass transit, Puentes explains. Yet under the current funding mechanisms, these large metropolitan regions often contribute more tax money to federal transportation programs than they get back from the federal government, notes Puentes. Instead, the federal government should recognize that these metropolitan areas “are disproportionately important” to the national economy and thus “should be the recipients of additional federal attention, not just in terms of dollars but in terms of programs that allow metropolitan innovations to flourish,” Puentes maintains.
Unfortunately, the American public does not provide much useful guidance in how to spend public money. For instance, a poll conducted roughly a week after the Minneapolis bridge collapse by CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation found that nearly half of all Americans were worried about additional bridge failures in the United States. But two-thirds of those surveyed did not want to raise the fuel tax to pay for inspecting or fixing those same suspect bridges.
Because of the government’s perceived incompetence in responding to the havoc caused by Katrina, the public is reluctant to trust politicians with more tax money, even for necessary infrastructure improvements, noted Schulz. But our reluctance to increase taxes means that “we are paying for the infrastructure insufficiency in other ways,” Schulz explained. “We are paying for it in increased travel time, obviously. We are paying for it in increased vehicle maintenance and operating costs and . . . in additional costs that hurt the productivity of our economy.”
The nation also needs to do a better job of setting priorities for infrastructure spending. For example, much federal transportation funding today is still allocated under state-focused mechanisms that were devised 50 years ago to finance the interstate highway system.
In his response to written questions for this article, ASCE’s former president Henry put it this way: “The amount of productive time lost because of the shortcomings of our roads, transit systems, and airports is staggering. We have seen that tax cuts promote a growth in wealth because people work to improve their position. The amount of time lost because of our infrastructure’s shortcomings counteracts the positive effects of the tax cuts.”
Think of American history and great works of engineering, many of them enormous infrastructure projects, easily come to mind. From the Erie Canal to the Panama Canal, the transcontinental railroad to the interstate highway system, Hoover Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge, building things—and building them big—just seemed to be part of what it meant to be an American.
But today such projects seem in danger of becoming ancient American history. Budget deficits, political infighting, the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, and a host of other problems often delay, diminish, or nullify plans for both new construction and needed upgrades to the infrastructure.
Overcoming such obstacles will require leadership, experts stress. And since it is the nation’s public infrastructure that is being discussed, that leadership must come from the public sector, especially the federal government.
Flynn concludes that the only way to solve the nation’s infrastructure problems “is with presidential leadership that uses the bully pulpit to help make the repair and maintenance of our infrastructure a national priority.” The enormous costs involved make it “politically impossible for a governor or mayor to talk about large investments in infrastructure as a key priority for the state or for a city,” Flynn adds, although he stresses that Washington only needs to set the tone, not define every detail of the process.
But right now such federal leadership is sorely lacking.
The federal agencies “involved in providing infrastructure do not appear to be guided by an overarching strategy that would integrate their actions across the infrastructure sectors,” noted Colonel Edward C. Gully, currently the special assistant to the commanding general of the facilities at Fort Lee, Virginia, involved in the U.S. Department of Defense’s base realignment and closure process, in a 2006 paper, “An Assessment of Our National Infrastructure Strategy,” he wrote while attending the U.S. Army War College. “Most critically, the lack of a long-term vision and well-defined ends and goals leads to a very fragmented approach and the sub-optimal use of federal resources,” Gully wrote. Although he stressed that “prioritization is critical,” Gully noted that “the current approach lacks a deliberate means to identify the relative priorities across the various programs—that is, among roads, aviation, water, inland navigation, et cetera.”
The result, Gully concluded in that paper, is “an unknown and unacceptable level of risk.”
To make matters worse, recent opinion polls indicate that the public’s trust in the federal government—especially Congress and the president—has fallen to historical lows just when the country seems to need national leadership the most. And it is far from certain how much attention the infrastructure will receive from the next occupant of the White House. The issue has largely disappeared from the 2008 campaign, and attempts by Civil Engineering to contact the leading presidential contenders for their views on the nation’s infrastructure received no response.
But the next president and the next Congress will have a profound effect on the future of the American infrastructure, notes Kavinoky. During the first 10 months of 2009, when the next surface transportation bill as well as the aviation and water resources legislation will probably require reauthorization, the federal government “will be making the decisions and laying the groundwork for all of the nation’s significant transportation infrastructure policies, programs, and funding,” she explains. That’s why the Chamber of Commerce, through its “Let’s rebuild America” campaign, is working now “to make sure that anybody running for office recognizes that they’ve got to start thinking about it now” so that the nation will not have to endure another 22‑month extension of a surface transportation bill or wait another eight years before a water resources bill passes, Kavinoky concludes.
Reacting to McQuaid’s contention in his August 5, 2007, essay in the Washington Post that America was becoming a “can’t-do” nation, Mongan responds as follows: “We seem to have lost the vision that existed in the fifties when Eisenhower signed the interstate highway bill, where we looked down the road forty years to a dream of having this forty- to fifty-thousand mile system of highways interconnecting all of the states in major urban areas in this country.” Thus when it comes to addressing the nation’s infrastructure crisis, Mongan concludes, “If he’s saying that this country lacks a vision, then I agree with him.”