Civil Engineers Raise U.S. Infrastructure Grade to D+

Amtrak Empire Builder
On Christmas Day, Amtrak's train 8, the eastbound Empire Builder glides into Columbus, Wisconsin. (Photo by On Christmas Day, Amtrak's train 8, the eastbound Empire Builder glides into Columbus, Wisconsin. (Photo by Bruce Schwierski)


WASHINGTON, DC, March 20, 2013 (ENS) – Over the past four years, the state of America’s infrastructure has improved from a grade of D to D+ but a spending shortfall of $1.6 trillion is anticipated by 2020, the American Society of Civil Engineers warns in its new report card.

The ASCE report, issued Tuesday, covers aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit, and wastewater.

For the first time since ASCE started producing Report Cards in 1998, the grades rose overall and rose in several sectors. Final grades were assigned based on capacity to meet future demand, condition, funding, future needs, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation.

The ASCE estimates that the United States needs to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 across the entire 16 sectors. Currently, only about $2 trillion in infrastructure spending is projected, leaving an estimated shortfall of roughly $1.6 trillion.

“A D+ is simply unacceptable for anyone serious about strengthening our nation’s economy. We’re investing in infrastructure; we’re just not investing enough,” said ASCE President Gregory DiLoreto, chief executive officer with the Tulatin Valley Water District in Oregon.

“As civil engineers, ASCE believes that we are the stewards of infrastructure – we designed it, we built it, and we actually oversee the operations and maintenance of it in many cases,” said DiLoreto. “The reason why we want to make improvements to our infrastructure is not just simply to improve the grade. Investment in our infrastructure will help grow our economy; it will create jobs and improve our quality of life.”

“It means being able to get to work easier without sitting in traffic all day long,” he said, “and continuing to enjoy safe, clean and reliable drinking water anywhere in the country; and having an electrical transmission grid with fewer or no blackouts.”

The 2013 grades ranged from a high of B- for solid waste to a low of D- for inland waterways and levees.

The condition of solid waste, drinking water, wastewater, roads, and bridges all saw incremental improvements, and rail jumped from a C- to a C+. No categories saw a decline in grade this year.

Summarizing its assessment of water and environment infrastructure, the ASCE report states:

Dams: Dams again earned a grade of D. The average age of the 84,000 dams in the country is 52 years old. The nation’s dams are aging and the number of high-hazard dams is on the rise – to nearly 14,000 in 2012. The number of deficient dams is currently more than 4,000. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that it will require an investment of $21 billion to repair these aging, yet critical, high-hazard dams.

water main break
Water main break, Montpelier, Vermont, August 2011 (Photo by HRED Pics)

Drinking Water: The grade for drinking water improved slightly to a D. Much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Association. The quality of drinking water in the United States remains universally high, however. Even though pipes and mains are frequently more than 100 years old and in need of replacement, outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare.

Hazardous Waste: The grade for hazardous waste remained unchanged at a D although there has been undeniable success in the cleanup of the nation’s hazardous waste and brownfields sites. Annual funding for Superfund site cleanup is estimated to be as much as $500 million short of what is needed, and 1,280 sites remain on the National Priorities List with an unknown number of potential sites yet to be identified. More than 400,000 brownfields sites await cleanup and redevelopment. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one in four Americans lives within three miles of a hazardous waste site.

Levees: Levees again earned a near failing grade of D- in 2013. The nation’s estimated 100,000 miles of levees can be found in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The country has yet to establish a National Levee Safety Program. Public safety remains at risk from these aging structures, and the cost to repair or rehabilitate these levees is roughly estimated to be $100 billion by the National Committee on Levee Safety. However, the return on investment is clear – as levees helped in the prevention of more than $141 billion in flood damages in 2011.

Solid Waste: The grade for solid waste improved in 2013, and it earned the highest grade of B-. In 2010, Americans generated 250 million tons of trash. Of that, 85 million tons were recycled or composted. This represents a 34 percent recycling rate, more than double the 14.5 percent in 1980. Per capita generation rates of waste have been steady over the past 20 years and have even begun to show signs of decline in the past several years.

Wastewater: The grade for wastewater improved slightly to a D. Capital investment needs for the nation’s wastewater and stormwater systems are estimated to total $298 billion over the next 20 years. Pipes represent three-quarters of total needs. Fixing and expanding the pipes will address sanitary sewer overflows and combined sewer overflows. In recent years, capital needs for the treatment plants comprise about 15 percent to 20 percent of total needs, but will likely increase due to new regulatory requirements. Stormwater needs, while growing, are still small compared with sanitary pipes and treatment plants.

power lines
Overloaded power grid, April 2012, New York City (Photo by Goggla)

Energy: The grade for energy remained a D+. America relies on an aging electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems, some of which originated in the 1880s. Investment in power transmission has increased since 2005, but ongoing permitting issues, weather events, and limited maintenance have contributed to an increasing number of failures and power interruptions. Although about 17,000 miles of additional high-voltage transmission lines and significant oil and gas pipelines are planned over the next five years, permitting and siting issues threaten their completion.

Public Parks and Recreation: The grade for parks remained unchanged at a C-. The popularity of parks and outdoor recreation areas in the United States continues to grow, with over 140 million Americans making use of these facilities a part of their daily lives. These activities contribute $646 billion to the nation’s economy, supporting 6.1 million jobs. Yet states and localities struggle to provide these benefits for parks amid flat and declining budgets, reporting an estimated $18.5 billion in unmet needs in 2011. The National Park Service estimates its maintenance backlog at $11 billion.

Summarizing its assessment of transportation infrastructure, the ASCE report states:

Aviation: Aviation again earned a D. Despite the recent recession, commercial flights were about 33 million higher in number in 2011 than in 2000, stretching the system’s ability to meet the needs of the nation’s economy. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that the national cost of airport congestion and delays was almost $22 billion in 2012. If current federal funding levels are maintained, the FAA anticipates that the cost of congestion and delays to the economy will rise from $34 billion in 2020 to $63 billion by 2040.

Bridges: With the overall number of structurally deficient bridges trending downward, this grade improved to C+. Over 200 million trips are taken daily across deficient bridges in the nation’s 102 largest metropolitan regions. In total, one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient, while the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is currently 42 years. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that to eliminate the nation’s bridge backlog by 2028, we would need to invest $20.5 billion annually, while only $12.8 billion is being spent currently.

Inland Waterways: Inland waterways received a D- grade once again as conditions remain poor and investment levels remain stagnant. While they carry the equivalent of about 51 million truck trips each year, the inland waterways system has not been updated since the 1950s, and more than half of the locks are over 50 years old. Barges are stopped for hours each day with unscheduled delays, preventing goods from getting to market and driving up costs. There is an average of 52 service interruptions a day throughout the system. Projects to repair and replace aging locks and dredge channels take decades to approve and complete.

Ports: This new category for 2013 debuted with a grade of C. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that more than 95 percent by volume of overseas trade produced or consumed by the United States moves through our ports. While port authorities and their private sector partners have planned over $46 billion in capital improvements from now until 2016, federal funding has declined for navigable waterways and landside freight connections.

Amtrak Empire Builder
On Christmas Day 2012, Amtrak’s eastbound Empire Builder approaches Columbus, Wisconsin. (Photo by Bruce Schwierske)

Rail: With high ridership and greater investment in the system, the rail grade was the most improved, moving up to a C+. Railroads are experiencing a competitive resurgence as both an energy-efficient freight transportation option and a viable city-to-city passenger service. In 2012, Amtrak recorded its highest year of ridership with 31.2 million passengers, almost doubling ridership since 2000, with growth anticipated to continue.

Both freight and passenger rail have been investing heavily in their tracks, bridges, and tunnels as well as adding new capacity for freight and passengers. In 2010 alone, freight railroads renewed the rails on more than 3,100 miles of railroad track, equivalent to going coast to coast. Since 2009, capital investment from both freight and passenger railroads has exceeded $75 billion, actually increasing investment during the recession when materials prices were lower and trains ran less frequently.

Roads: Efforts to improve conditions and reductions in highway fatalities improved the roads grade to a D this year. However, 42 percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually. Federal, state, and local capital investments increased to $91 billion annually, but the Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion in capital investment would be needed on an annual basis to improve conditions and performance.

Transit: The grade for transit remained at a D. One-third of Americans do not drive cars, but 45 percent of American households lack any access to transit, and millions more have inadequate service levels. Americans who do have access have increased their ridership 9.1 percent in the past decade although many transit agencies are struggling to maintain aging and obsolete fleets and facilities amid an economic downturn that has reduced their funding, forcing service cuts and fare increases.

“As stewards, we have a responsibility with the Report Card to call attention to the state of the nation’s infrastructure,” said DiLoreto. “We as Americans need to be proactive in monitoring and taking care of our infrastructure so that it will be here not only for us, but for our children and our grandchildren.”

Founded in 1852, the American Society of Civil Engineers represents more than 141,000 members of the civil engineering profession worldwide and is America’s oldest national engineering society.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.

Continue Reading