U.S. Infrastructure Improving, but not by Much
By Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
The American Society of Civil Engineers says America’s infrastructure is improving, but just barely; it moved from a D to a D-plus.
“The backlog of projects to maintain and modernize our infrastructure continues to grow,” said Brian Pallasch, the engineering society’s managing director for government relations and infrastructure initiatives. He was one of the featured speakers on a recent CSG webinar, “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.”
Two categories—levees and inland waterways—received a near-failing grade of D-minus. Six categories saw improvements in 2009.
“There were noticeable and tangible improvements in the areas of roads, bridges, solid waste, drinking water, wastewater and rail,” Pallasch said.
The American Society of Civil Engineers releases its report card every four years; it details the condition and performance of the country’s vast infrastructure network.
Pallasch said the country’s highest grade in 2013 was for solid waste, which increased from a C-plus to a B-minus. Americans may have generated 250 million tons of trash in 2010, but recycled 34 percent of it—more than double the recycling rate in 1980.
America’s rail system also is doing better, increasing from a C-minus to a C-plus. It was the biggest gain in this year’s report.
“We feel this is primarily in relationship to the amount of private sector investment that has been done in the rail sector,” Pallasch said. “In the sectors where investments were made by both the public and private sector, and where innovative solutions were pursued, the grades rose.”
Pallasch said there’s good and bad news where the country’s bridges are concerned. That category rose from a C in 2009 to a C-plus in 2013.
“The number of deficient bridges is on the decline due to coordinated efforts as states, locals and the federal government made that a priority,” he said. “But there certainly is more work to be done, as a large number of the deficient bridges … carry traffic mostly in urban areas. … That’s a number that keeps going up and we are keeping a pretty close eye on that.”
Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, is familiar with bridge problems. The Interstate 94 corridor runs through the heart of Detroit. It was built in the 1940s, Steudle said, and is in need of a complete overhaul.
“(The corridor) has got 48 bridges in it that have been listed as structurally deficient for the last 15 years and we’ve been holding them together with tape and bailing wire,” Steudle said. “Frankly, this year we couldn’t wait any longer. That project, while it’s only six miles, is $1 billion and climbing.”
Cost is a major problem, both Pallasch and Steudle said. Many parts of the country’s infrastructure are 40 to 50 years old and are approaching the end of their lifespans. How state and federal governments handle the replacement costs remain to be seen.
“If you’re going to do just one bridge and then you’re going to come back and do the next bridge,” said Steudle, “well, you’re going to be there every year working on a bridge for the next 25 years. The impact on the customer is just too great. But then when you bundle them together, you get a number that is so big it consumes your whole budget. It really becomes a very difficult choice.”
Pallasch said levees also are a prime concern for the engineering society. While the engineers estimate the country has 100,000 miles of levees, nobody knows for sure where they all are. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, there was no national inventory of levees. So far, about 33,000 miles have been inventoried.
“Which means we know where they are; some of them have actually had an engineering inspection and we know a little bit more about them,” Pallasch said. “We have some concern that public safety remains at risk in some parts because we don’t know where all the levees are. We also would like for there to be a national levee safety program, which would—in effect—help states and local governments do a better job of building a safer set of levees … and doing a little bit of work on maintaining the current levees.”
Pallasch said Americans need to spend an estimated $3.6 trillion more by 2020 to meet the country’s infrastructure investment needs.
“If we don’t start making these investments, we’re going to lose $3.1 trillion in GDP (gross domestic product), which is almost equivalent to the GDP of France,” he said. “We have the potential to see a $1.1 trillion decline in the U.S. trade value. That happens to be equivalent to Mexico’s GDP.
“While the investment need may seem daunting, the real story of our economic studies is we really can’t wait to afford to do this. It’s having an impact right now on our infrastructure.”
To view the webinar click here.