Monday, February 16, 2009

Our failing infrastructure

The House and Senate reached agreement (sort of) on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the economic stimulus package). Final cost: $790 billion. That's a staggering amount of money, but it pales in comparison to what the American Society of Civil Engineers say it will take to repair the nation's seriously deteriorating infrastructure.

Unfortunately, we don't usually think about infrastructure until something goes wrong like a bridge or levee collapse. The stimulus bill does address a number of infrastructure priorities including roads, bridges, dams, public transit, rail, water systems, and the grid among others (see the official ASCE blog: "Our Failing Infrastructure").

But we still have a long way to go. (GW)

Engineers Give U.S. Infrastructure a 'D', Seek $2.2 Trillion in Stimulus: ASCE 2009 Infrastructure Report Card

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has just released a summary of its 2009 Infrastructure Report Card, and the news is bad. With the best grades at C+, the worst at D–, and an overall performance of D, the same as last year’s total, this is one report card that isn’t going up on the fridge. The new report claims that improvements were deferred since the 2005 report, and so the costs rose–the new estimate is $2.2 trillion over five years ($600 billion added in four years). Here is a look at the report and what are the most pressing projects for the current administration to tackle.

January 28, 2009

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has just released a summary of its 2009 Infrastructure Report Card, and the news isn't exactly surprising–it's bad. The purpose of the report card format is to make the study easily accessible to the public, replacing the opaque engineering-speak of structural deficiency and design lifespan with familiar letter grades for each of 15 categories, as well as a cumulative tally. It also invites easy clichés. So with the best grades at C+, the worst at D–, and an overall performance of D, the same as last year's total, this is one report card that isn't going up on the fridge. But the more appropriate response might be gallows humor. Because this isn't simply a fresh reminder that American infrastructure has been stagnant over the past four years. These are the grades of a student in the early throes of failing out. In the ASCE's 2005 report card, the projected cost of repairing and operating the country's infrastructure was $1.6 trillion. The new report claims that funding never reached recommended levels. So needed work was deferred, and so the costs rose–the new estimate is $2.2 trillion over five years, a number that dwarfs whatever potential slice of President Obama's economic stimulus package might be slated for infrastructure.

"The nation's infrastructure faces some very real problems," says Andrew Herrman, chair of the advisory council for the report card, in ASCE's press release, "problems that pose an equally real threat to our way of life if they are not addressed appropriately." Although the full report won't be ready until March 25th, the details of this preliminary report card paint an urgent picture. More than a quarter of the country's bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The maintenance backlog for dams is ballooning, as 1,819 dams with high hazard potential are now considered deficient. And the report card's newest infrastructure category, added for the first time this year, might be the most disturbing. The nation's levees received a D–. Like drinking water systems, levees are on the verge of failure, with lives hanging in the balance behind their crumbling walls.

For the United States Army Corps of Engineers, this sort of debut, particularly in a report that's destined to be quoted as extensively as its predecessor, might seem like a continuation of the agency's pubic drubbing following Hurricane Katrina. "I welcome it," says Tammy Conforti, the Corps' levee safety program manager. "As Katrina fades away into background, my fear is that people are going to start forgetting about it. I think the report card is going to keep the attention focused on levees, and make people much more aware throughout the nation." The levee situation is, in some ways, a perfect example of the magnitude of the larger infrastructure crisis, and of the impact of deferring maintenance for decades. The ASCE estimates that there are 100,000 miles of levees in the United States, 85 percent of them owned and maintained by local sponsors. But that's essentially guesswork–no agency has anything approaching a complete index of the country's levees. In 2006, the Corps was asked to create the first national database, but it took another two years to secure the funding to include private, non-federal levees. At press time, the index contains just 9800 miles of levees (less than 10 percent of the estimated total). By the end of this fiscal year, Conforti hopes to add another 4200 miles, which will round out the 14,000 miles of levees that the Corps is responsible for inspecting. To catalog the rest, the Corps will have to start negotiating with state and local governments to share existing data, and, in some cases, to assess levees that are not only a century old, but that may have never been visited by a single inspector. Until this bureaucratic quest is finished, there's no way to know who or what is at risk in the next flood or hurricane. The business of fixing America's levees, in other words, hasn't even begun.

To some extent, that goes for the rest of the infrastructure included in this report card. The problems were made plain in 2005, and few have been addressed at the state or federal level since. And dithering has lead to a rise in the ultimate cost of repair. Comparing the two report cards, energy was the only category to see improvement, from a D to a D+. This is in line with our own investigation into U.S. infrastructure–the energy industry is expanding its ability to create and distribute electricity, particularly around the West Coast, and reinforcing overtaxed power grids around the country. The Army Corps also deserves credit for responding to Katrina. The inspection checklist for levees is now more detailed, and more orderly, with one standardized set of criteria instead of multiple checklists. And while levees are currently rated as either acceptable, minimally acceptable or unacceptable, the Corps is creating a new system that will place levees into more useful categories, based on inspection data and engineering assessments, and help to prioritize the total inventory. Levees might be among the worst offenders, but this report emphasizes the dire state of U.S. infrastructure as a whole. The crisis is confirmed. Prioritization is the next step, but as the 2009 report card reveals, we may not have another four years to waste.

U.S. Infrastructure Report Cards, 2001 – 2009: From the American Society of Civil Engineers
ASCE Report Card


Post a Comment

<< Home