As contributing editor Jay Landers reports in his feature “Marking Progress,” ASCE’s 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gives the nation’s infrastructure a C-, its highest overall grade since the Society began issuing its quadrennial assessments in 1998.
But the improvement in the overall grade doesn’t tell the whole story. ASCE’s Committee on America’s Infrastructure — the body of experts who work diligently to analyze the nation’s infrastructure category by category to determine the grades — gave only five categories better grades in 2021 than in 2017. Those are aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports.
On the plus side, only one category — bridges — received a lower grade. But the rest of the grades remained unchanged from the previous report card, with one — stormwater — given its own grade for the first time this year. It earned a D.
Clearly, increases in the quality of the nation’s infrastructure have been incremental.
Many of the members of the CAI pointed out that increases in funding are what made the difference in those categories that saw improvements. Gregory DiLoreto, P.E., P.L.S., D.WRE, Pres.13.ASCE, the chair emeritus of the CAI, put it most succinctly: “Where investments have been made, the grades have risen. It’s a very simple correlation.”
As this issue goes to press, the civil engineering profession eagerly awaits the signing of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVD-19 stimulus package, which includes $350 billion in aid to cash-strapped state and local governments. Even more promising is a targeted $2 trillion infrastructure spending bill that the president has promised.
But civil engineers are not waiting for federal funding to drive innovation. They have gotten used to being creative with whatever funding they can get.
Witness the increasing application of the deceptively simple traffic solution known as the modern roundabout, a safer and more efficient cousin of the dreaded traffic circle. As senior editor/features manager Robert L. Reid writes in “All about the Roundabout," today’s roundabouts increase safety, boost throughput, keep vehicles from spewing pollution as they idle at traffic lights, and offer municipalities the extra benefit of not requiring electrified signals. Even if a storm knocks out the power, roundabouts keep working; there is no need for police to direct traffic. That represents a perfect example of systems thinking.
Then, there is the effort to add hydropower to the Red Rock Dam on Iowa’s Des Moines River. Engineers from Stantec point out that the project presented a thorny challenge because the dam had never been designed with hydropower in mind and had to keep operating as the powerhouse and penstocks were added. The new system generates enough clean, renewable energy to power 18,000 homes in the nearby community. That’s a win for the community and a win for the environment — not to mention the client.
And the preservation of nature played a significant role in a relatively modest but locally significant project south of Austin, Texas.. Rodriguez Transportation Group and McCarthy Building Companies were called on to solve multiple problems. Commuters needed direct access to the highway that would take them to their jobs in the city. Community residents needed to get those commuters off their local roads, which were never designed for the traffic they were seeing. And the land through which the new link was to be built needed to be preserved because beneath it lay an aquifer providing drinking water to millions of people and irrigation for agriculture. The solution? Engineers used fill to raise the alignment of the new connector highway. Digging wouldn’t touch the aquifer. Problem solved.
And solving complex problems like these is becoming infinitely easier with the use of cloud computing, according to authors with Arup and Rönesans Holding. The engineers describe a process called “optioneering,” by which they were able to run a previously unthinkable number of simulations to arrive at the optimal design for a hospital in a highly seismic zone.
Funding for infrastructure upgrades is critical, to be sure. But as these examples — and those in the Infrastructure Solutions series published in Civil Engineering over the past several years — demonstrate, civil engineers will continue to innovate with whatever resources they have at their disposal. CE
This article first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Civil Engineering as "Innovation Knows No Price Tag."