America's Crumbling Infrastructure Eroding Quality of Life


Newswise — Traffic congestion and our children's overcrowded schools are daily reminders that the state of our nation's infrastructure directly affects our economy and quality of life. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) today released its 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure—assigning a cumulative grade of D for the nation's infrastructure. The condition of our nation's roads, bridges, drinking water systems and other public works have shown little to no improvement since they were graded an overall D+ in 2001, with some areas sliding toward failing grades.

"Americans are spending more time stuck in traffic and less time at home with their families," says ASCE President William P. Henry, P.E., F.ASCE. "We need to establish a comprehensive, long-term infrastructure plan as opposed to our current 'patch and pray' method to ensure a better quality of life for everyone."

To remedy America's current and looming problems, ASCE estimates an investment need of $1.6 trillion over a five-year period from all levels of government and the private sector. This amount does not include estimates for infrastructure security needs. The investment needed for protecting our nation's critical infrastructure is still being defined within the Department of Homeland Security framework.

The 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure assesses the same 12 infrastructure categories as in 2001, in addition to three new categories—public parks and recreation, rail and security. While there has been some improvement in aviation and schools, ASCE's analysis indicates that overall conditions have remained the same for bridges, dams and solid waste, and worsened in roads, drinking water, transit, wastewater, hazard waste, navigable waterways and energy.

Grades range from a high of C+ for solid waste to a low of D- for drinking water, navigable waterways and wastewater. Infrastructure security received an incomplete. While the security of our nation's critical infrastructure has improved since Sept. 11, the information needed to accurately assess its overall status is not readily available to engineering and design professionals. However, along with capacity and condition, it is crucial to consider infrastructure security in any discussion concerning solutions for improving our nation's infrastructure.

Both drinking water and wastewater declined from a D to a D- in the past four years. The nation's drinking water system faces a staggering public investment need to replace aging facilities, comply with safe drinking water regulations and meet future needs. Federal funding in 2005 remains at $850 million, less than 10 percent of the total national requirement. Aging wastewater systems discharge billions of gallons of untreated sewage into U.S. surface waters each year. The EPA estimates that the nation must invest $390 billion over the next 20 years to replace existing wastewater systems and build new ones to meet increasing demand.

Navigable waterways also received a D-, compared to a D+ in 2001. Waterways are an excellent method for moving large volumes of bulk commodities at a fraction of the cost of rail or trucks. Of the 257 locks on the more than 12,000 miles of inland waterways operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, nearly 50 percent are functionally obsolete. By 2020, the number will increase to 80 percent. The poor condition of these systems threatens commercial traffic that affects our nation's economy.

In transportation, two categories have worsened—roads from D+ to D and transit from C- to D+. Poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists $54 billion a year in repairs and operating costs—$275 per motorist. Americans spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, at a cost of $63 billion a year to the economy. Transit use increased faster than any other mode of transportation—up 21 percent in between 1993 and 2002. Yet, many transit properties are borrowing funds to maintain operations, even as they are significantly raising fares and cutting back service. While long-term Federal transportation programs remain unauthorized since expiring on Sept. 30, 2003, the nation continues to shortchange funding for needed transportation improvements.

The other two areas in decline are energy and hazardous waste, both from a D+ to D. The U.S. power transmission system is in urgent need of modernization. Despite increased demand, transmission capacity has decreased. In addition, maintenance expenditures have decreased 1 percent annually since 1992. In 2002, the Department of Energy stated that the existing transmission system was not designed to meet present demand, which could result in increased electricity costs to consumers and greater risk of blackouts. The August 2003 blackout cost billions of dollars in lost productivity and revenue.

For hazardous waste, federal funding for cleanup of the nation's worst toxic waste sites has steadily decreased since 1998, reaching its lowest level since 1986 in fiscal year 2005. There are 1,237 contaminated sites on the National Priorities List, with a possible addition of 10,154. In 2003, there were 205 cities with "brownfields" sites awaiting cleanup that would generate an estimated 576,373 jobs and $1.9 million annually if redeveloped.

For three categories—bridges, dams and solid waste, the grades remained the same as in 2001. Bridges received a C grade again. Between 2000 and 2003, the percentage of the nation's 590,750 bridges rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete decreased slightly from 28.5 percent to 27.1 percent. However, one in three urban bridges was classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, much higher than the national average. It will cost $9.4 billion a year for 20 years to eliminate all bridge deficiencies and long-term underinvestment is compounded by the lack of a federal transportation program.

For dams, the grade remained a D. Federally-owned dams are in good condition and there have been modest gains in repair of small watershed dams. However, since 1998, the number of unsafe dams has risen by 33 percent to more than 3,500. It will take $10.1 billion over the next 12 years to address all critical non-federal dams, dams which can pose a direct threat to human life should they fail.

As in 2001 solid waste is again rated a C+. In 2002, Americans produced 369 million tons of solid waste and only about a quarter was recycled or recovered. Though the nation's operating municipal landfills are declining in total numbers, the capacity has remained steady due to the construction of numerous larger regional landfills. Nationally, states have disposal capacity for another 19-20 years, though a number of states are nearing the end of their ability to manage waste within their borders and their equipment is at capacity and aging.

Only two categories improved slightly—aviation, given a D+ from a D, and schools, rated a D compared to a D- in 2001. Much attention has been given to airport security; however, airport capacity issues must be addressed to avoid costly delays in the future. Demand for air travel is on the rebound with a projected growth of 4.3 percent annually through 2015. Though federal funding has increased significantly over previous years, airports also will face a new challenge of accommodating increasing numbers of regional jets and new super-jumbo jets.

The Federal government has not assessed the condition of America's schools since 1999, when it estimated that $127 billion was needed to bring facilities to good condition. Other sources have since reported a need as high as $268 billion. Despite public support of bond initiatives to provide funding for school facilities, without a clear understanding of the need, it is uncertain whether schools can meet increasing enrollment demands and the smaller class sizes mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.

The other new categories—rail and public parks and recreation—both received the same C- grade. Many of our nation's public parks, beaches and recreational harbors are falling into a state of disrepair. Much of the initial construction was done more than 50 years ago. These facilities are anchors for tourism and economic development and often provide the public's only access to the country's cultural, historic and natural resources. The National Park Service estimates a maintenance backlog of $6.1 billion for their facilities.

For the first time since World War II, limited rail capacity has created significant chokepoints and delays. This problem will increase as freight rail is expected to increase at least 50 percent by 2020. In addition, the use of rail for intercity passenger and commuter rail service is increasingly being recognized as a worthwhile transportation investment. A combined investment need of $12 to $13 billion per year is needed to maintain existing rail infrastructure and expand for future growth.

The 2005 Report Card was assessed by an advisory council of 24 civil engineers representing a broad spectrum of civil engineering disciplines. Each category was evaluated on the basis of condition and performance as reported by federal sources; capacity versus need; and current and pending investment of state, local and federal funding versus need. For more information, including state infrastructure statistics, visit http://www.asce.org/reportcard.

Founded in 1852, ASCE represented more than 137,000 civil engineers worldwide, and is America's oldest national engineering society. ASCE celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2002.

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