Research - APRIL 24, 2017

U.S. infrastructure receives failing grade

by Andrea Waitrovich

The American Society of Civil Engineers released its quadrennial “Report Card” last month on the condition of infrastructure in the United States. Once again, the association gave the United States an overall grade of D+, the same as in 2013.

The ASCE report assesses the state of 16 different categories of infrastructure: aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, parks and recreation, ports, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit and wastewater.

Twelve of the 16 sections evaluated earned a D grade. The report defines a D grade as “the infrastructure is in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of serious concern with strong risk of failure.”

According to ASCE, the total costs to bring all U.S. infrastructure into an adequate condition would exceed $2 trillion.

The highest grade for any section of the report was earned by rail, which received a B. The report notes that the nation’s railways are largely privately owned and that major companies generally invest significant resources for rail maintenance. The lowest grade was earned by transit, a D-. This includes buses, subway and light rail systems. The report estimates the backlog maintenance costs to be $90 billion.

In the categories of dams and levees, upon whose maintenance millions of lives depend, the report states that an estimated $125 billion will be required to upgrade them to a safe standard. The average age for all dams in the United States is 56 years. There are 15,500 dams classified as “high hazard potential” with 2,170 of those considered “deficient high hazard potential.” In other words, there are more than 2,000 dams in the United States ready to burst.

Last month in California, 188,000 people were evacuated due to the threat of flooding from the damaged spillway of the 770-foot-high Oroville Dam.

The nation’s drinking water systems — whose woeful state has been exposed by lead contamination in Flint, Mich.; Fresno, Calif.; and other cities over the past several years — require an estimated $1 trillion over the next 25 years to maintain and expand a safe and adequate supply for the country’s growing population. Many of the over 1 million pipes that carry the nation’s fresh water were laid in the early and mid-20th century, with an operational lifespan of 75 to 100 years. The report estimates that there are 240,000 water main breaks in the United States each year.

The section of the report on bridges and roads, which earned grades of C+ and D, respectively, details the frightening state of decay American commuters face daily. The average age of bridges in the United States is 56 years. An estimated 9.1 percent of the nation’s bridges — 56,007 total — are deemed to be structurally deficient. Some 188 million trips are made across dangerous bridges daily in the United States. Since 2000, there have been bridge collapses in a dozen different states, the most recent of which occurred in Atlanta on March 30 when a section of I-85 failed due to fire. There have been more than 200 casualties due to the bridge collapses since 2000, with 40 killed and 163 injured. The report assesses an estimated cost of $123 billion to rehabilitate the nation’s bridges.

In addition, one out of every five miles of highway pavement in the United States is deemed to be in poor condition.

Public schools are given a grade of D+. The report estimates schools are underfunded by approximately $38 billion. Of the nearly 100,000 public school buildings in the United States, 24 percent were classified as being in a state of “fair to poor” condition.

In the category of containment and disposal of hazardous waste, which can impact the health of tens of millions, the report gives a grade of D+.

In the section of the report titled “solutions to raise the grade” the authors suggest, “Infrastructure owners and operators must charge, and Americans must be willing to pay, rates and fees that reflect the true cost of using, maintaining and improving infrastructure.” Other sections advocate “user generated fees,” hiking the gasoline tax, and other regressive proposals that would disproportionately affect the country’s poorest citizens. The report also calls for more “public-private” partnerships, along with the streamlining of approval for private investment in public infrastructure projects.

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