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ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card Gives Nation a D, Estimates Cost at $2.2 Trillion

February 2009 Volume 34, Number 2

ASCE released the grades in its 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, January 28, approximately two months ahead of schedule. Although the overall grade given by the “report card”—a D—is the same as that conferred four years ago, the projected cost of repairing the nation’s infrastructure has grown to a daunting $2.2 trillion over the next five years.

“For the first time since we issued our [first] report card in 1998 . . . the nation discusses the role of infrastructure in stimulating our economy,” said Patrick J. Natale, P.E., F.ASCE, the Society’s executive director. “Recognizing the importance of informing and contributing to this discussion in a timely manner, we made an unprecedented decision to release the report card components of our 2009 report card two months ahead of schedule.” At press time President Obama was calling on Congress to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R. 1, S. 1), a bill that could allocate as much as $98.25 billion toward repairing and revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure.

The Society’s 1998 infrastructure assessment also assigned an overall grade of D, which, according to ASCE’s president, D. Wayne Klotz, P.E., D.WRE, F.ASCE, “surprised everyone, including the engineers who conducted the assessment. It served as a wake-up call for the nation. Unfortunately, we hit the snooze button.” Klotz lamented the fact that “in more than a decade, the United States has made no significant progress in improving either the condition or performance of our roads, bridges, water systems, or other vital infrastructure.” ASCE’s last national infrastructure assessment, in 2005, estimated that the country would need to invest approximately $1.6 trillion to raise the grades, a figure that has since grown by approximately $600 billion.

Although the nation’s infrastructure is failing, said Klotz, some communities around the country are “beginning to address some of their most critical infrastructure challenges.” By way of example, he cited California’s efforts to maintain and repair its levees and Atlanta’s work in renewing its sewer system. Despite these efforts, however, he noted that most of the grades have remained the same or have declined. The reason, Klotz explained, is that “we do not invest enough to maintain our infrastructure, let alone improve it on any significant scale.”

The funds from the proposed stimulus legislation and the estimated spending over five years, which is estimated at $903 billion, will certainly help address infrastructure needs. Nevertheless, ASCE’s assessment estimates that, even with the stimulus package, the nation’s infrastructure will face a deficit of approximately $1.1 trillion. “We clearly have a long way to go,” said Klotz.

Edward G. Rendell (D), the governor of Pennsylvania and a cochair of Building America’s Future—a nonprofit organization that is working to address the investment needs of the nation in the area of infrastructure—agreed that while the stimulus is “more than a drop in a bucket,” it is still insufficient. Concerned that the Obama administration, Congress, and the public might perceive that the infrastructure’s shortcomings have been adequately addressed once the economic stimulus bill has been passed, the governor emphasized that that bill “is only a down payment.”

The largest estimated deficits in the assessment’s 15 categories are in the roads and bridges segments, which face a gap totaling $548.5 billion; mass transit, which faces a gap of $189.5 billion; and drinking water and wastewater, which face a shortfall of $107 billion. The smallest estimated deficits among the categories are those for schools ($9.6 billion), rail ($19 billion), and inland waterways ($20.5 billion).

In view of the fact that no clear solution has been proposed for securing proper funding, Klotz stressed that “we must establish reliable, dedicated funding sources to meet the needs of current and future users and to support ongoing system operation and maintenance.” As he put it, “User fees such as the gas tax and utility fees are common approaches to establishing these funding sources.” He also underscored the need to establish more public-private partnerships as a way of obtaining infrastructure funding. For his part, Rendell suggested changing the methods used by the federal government to fund infrastructure: “I am a strong believer that we need a federal capital budget. It makes no sense for the federal government to be the only political subdivision in the country that buys paper clips the same way it invests in bridges that have a forty- or fifty-year life span.” Rendell also emphasized the need to support the authorization of a federal surface transportation policy.

According to the assessment, the categories of infrastructure in the worst condition—those that received a grade of D–—are drinking water, wastewater, inland waterways, roads, and the new category: levees. More than 85 percent of the nation’s levees are privately owned and their conditions are unknown, according to the report. Nevertheless, development behind these levees has grown, thus increasing the risk to safety and public health if they fail. While it is estimated that levees will need approximately $50 billion over the next five years, the actual spending during that period is expected to total only $1.13 billion.

“Raising the grades on our infrastructure will require that we seek and adopt a wide range of solutions in every category, including technical advances, funding, and regulatory changes in public behavior and support,” said Andrew Herrmann, P.E., M.ASCE, the chair of the advisory council that helped ASCE prepare the assessment. Herrmann used the category of solid waste as an example in this regard. Over the years, he noted, this category has consistently received a C+. Although the category “is certainly no overachiever,” a range of solutions have been found to address projections indicating that there was insufficient landfill capacity to meet the nation’s solid waste disposal needs, Herrmann explained. “Consumers changed their behavior through recycling. Engineers developed improved landfill designs and trash-to-energy plants. Regulatory changes promoted acceptance of these changes,” he said.

As part of its assessment ASCE proposed five measures that it believes will help the country achieve higher grades:

  •  Increase federal leadership in infrastructure;
  •  Promote sustainability and resilience;
  •  Develop federal and regional infrastructure plans;
  •  Address life-cycle costs and maintenance needs;
  •  Increase and improve infrastructure investment from all stakeholders.

“The answer is not just building a road. You need to step back and look at a holistic solution to the problem on a regional basis, on a state basis, and on a federal basis,” Natale stressed.

The full version of the 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which will describe each category and grade in detail, is to be released in March. The grades meted out this week received the attention of such media outlets as the New York Times, CBS News, CNN, MSNBC, and the Washington Post. For additional information, visit www.asce.org/reportcard

See PDF of Report Card

—Brett Hansen