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Latest Poor Grades Reflect Dismal Conditions

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The American Society of Civil Engineers has issued its third report card on the state of the nation’s infrastructure. The “poor” status reported in 2001 and 2005 is unchanged, while the five-year, $2.2-trillion investment needed to correct it has increased by half a trillion dollars since 2005.

The ASCE released its 2009 Report Card for Infrastructure two months earlier than planned, hoping to influence the national discussion over infrastructure funding now taking place in Washington, D.C., officials from the group said. The report card, which gives the nation’s infrastructure an overall grade of “D,” or “Poor,” synopsizes the findings of the detailed, state-by-state report due out March 25.

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At a Jan. 28 press conference, ASCE officials, joined by Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell (D), offered a harsh assessment of the state of the nation’s infrastructure and stressed the urgent need for more funding. “We do not invest enough to maintain our infrastructure, let alone improve it on any significant scale,” said ASCE President D. Wayne Klotz, president of Klotz Associates Inc., Houston. As an example, he said for every deficient dam repaired last year, two more were added to the backlog. “At that rate, it is one step forward, two steps back.”

Klotz said the funding level proposed in the $825-billion economic stimulus plan “is a start,” but “even with the stimulus package, there remains a still significant—some would say staggering—gap between needed investments levels and funding.”

Gov. Rendell said he supports the President’s economic stimulus package and hopes Congress passes it swiftly, but adds, “It’s a down payment only. It’s only a drop in the bucket....This is a problem that unless we deal with it, it is only going to get worse.”

Rendell suggests Congress use the next highway reauthorization bill to get the additional funds for roads and bridges. “We have an opportunity,” he said.

In the report card, only one category improved since 2005: the electrical power grid. It rose from D to D+ in the five-letter scheme of A to F, with F representing failing. Grades fell for aviation, roads and transit. Due to format changes, cumulative grades over the years are not comparable, but little or no movement is suggested. A new category, “levees,” replaces “security,” which was introduced in 2005. ASCE spokeswoman Joan Buhrman says security now is factored in every category.

The report was developed by an advisory council of 28 engineers from a variety of disciplines. They consulted with technical and industry experts and analyzed data from a wide range of sources, including reports from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Government Accountability Office, the American Public Transportation Association and the American Association of State highway and Transportation Officials.

Factors considered included the condition of the infrastructure; its current and potential capacity; current funding levels; public safety; how well the existing infrastructure is maintained by pubic agencies compared to “best practices” and future needs. The committee also took into account how well the infrastructure would protect against man-made threats or natural disasters.

The Breakdown:

  • Aviation slipped. The Federal Aviation Administration forecasts a 3% annual growth in air travel, but increasing delays are expected because of a failure to enact a federal aviation improvement program or modernize air-traffic control systems.
  • ASCE says bridges need a $17-billion annual investment to substantially improve them. Only $10 billion is spent on construction and maintenance today.
  • Dams remain mediocre. Of 85,000 U.S. dams, more than 4,000 are “deficient,” up from 3,500 four years ago. The increase is attributed to advancing age and downstream development, which increases risk. Of deficient dams, 1,819 are classed “high-hazard potential.”
  • Drinking-water infrastructure suffers from age, increasing demand and stricter regulation. The annual investment shortfall is at least $11 billion.
  • The power grid is the bright spot, if rising from D to D+ is celebrated. Continued investment in generation, transmission and distribution is projected for the next 20 years.
  • Hazardous waste cleanup since 2005 has generated 200,000 jobs and $408 million in new revenue for localities, but federal Superfund funding has dropped, falling to $1.8 billion in 2008, the lowest in 22 years.
  • The nation’s inland waterways depend on 257 locks, including 30 built in the 1800s and 92 that are more than 60 years old. Replacing the locks would cost an estimated $125 billion.
  • Levees are new to the list, propelled there by disaster. Rapid development of land behind levees built to save crops, not lives, has increased risk and left the nation with 100,000 miles of mostly locally owned levees of uncertain reliability. Estimates put the cost of repair and rehabilitation at more than $100 billion.
  • Public parks and recreation contributed 6.5 million jobs and $730 billion annually. Significant investment is being made, but the National Park Service still faces a $7-billion maintenance backlog.
  • Rail needs $200 billion invested through 2035 to meet expected growth in freight and passenger demand.
  • Poor roads drain the economy of an estimated $145.2 billion in lost time, avoidable repairs and increased operating costs. Current annual spending of $70.3 billion is far short of the $186 billion needed to substantially improve things.
  • Schools spending rose from $17 billion in 1998 to $29 billion in 2004, but fell to 20.28 billion in 2007. No comprehensive data on the national need has been compiled for decades, but the National Education Association’s estimate to bring schools to “good” repair is $322 billion.
  • Solid waste gets a relatively high mark. Increases in recycling tilt the plus side of the scales, but growing piles of electronic wastes and a lack of regulation of its disposal pose a looming threat.
  • Mass transit use grew 25% from 1995 to 2005, but half the population still does not have access to bus or rail transit. The Federal Transit Administration estimates an annual need of $15.8 billion to avoid deterioration and $21.6 billion to improve to “good.” In 2008 the federal capital outlay for transit was $9.8 billion.
  • Aging wastewater systems face a $390-billion investment need over the next 20 years. The category gets a D-, just a shade above failing.

Subject 2001 Grade 2005 Grade 2009 Grade
Aviation D D+ D
Bridges C C C
Dams D D D
Drinking Water D D- D-
Energy (National Power Grid) D+ D D+
Hazardous Waste D+ D D
Inland Waterways D+ D- D-
Levees - - D-
Public Parks & Recreation - C- C-
Rail - C- C-
Roads D+ D D-
Schools D- D D
Solid Waste C+ C+ C+
Transit C- D+ D
Wasterwater D D- D-

 

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