When the good news is that your grade has improved to a D+, there isn't much good news—but that is the current state of U.S. infrastructure, the nation's civil engineers say.
"[O]ur infrastructure systems are failing to keep pace with the current and expanding needs, and investment in infrastructure is faltering," concludes the 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, just released by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The report, issued every four years, offers a detailed look at the condition and needs of U.S. dams, energy grids, drinking water and wastewater, systems, highways, roads, bridges, waterways, levees, rail and other infrastructure.
Hits and Misses
To the extent that there is good news, it is this: America's cumulative GPA for infrastructure rose slightly to a D+ (from a D) since the 2009 report, no individual category rated an F for Failing, and no individual category rated worse than it did four years ago.
The bad news, on the other hand, includes:
71,177 structurally deficient bridges;
78,477 functionally obsolete bridges;
Grades of D (Poor) for aviation, dams, drinking water, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, roads, schools, transit and wastewater; and
Grades of D- for inland waterways and levees.
ASCE's estimate to make required repairs and upgrades through 2020: $3.6 trillion.
Grades and Disparities
The grades are based on eight criteria: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation. Grades are also assigned by infrastructure sector, and there is a state-by-state summary as well.
Overall, the grades have been near failing since 1998—due, the group says, to "delayed maintenance and underinvestment across most categories."
Summaries offer a snapshot of infrastructure conditions in each state and Washington, D.C.
Within that overall poor showing, however, are some significant disparities by sector and by region. By sector, the 2013 grades ranged from a high of B- for solid waste to a low of D- for inland waterways and levees. Solid waste, drinking water, wastewater, roads, and bridges all saw incremental improvements, and rail jumped from a C- to a C+.
Each state (and Washington, D.C.) has its own unique challenges and needs as well:
Texas, for example, has 915 high-hazard dams, while Minnesota has just 47.
In Alabama, 25 percent of roads are of poor or mediocre quality, which costs those motorists $141 a year. Washington, D.C., residents, on the other hand, pay $833 a year for the 99 percent of their roads that are poor or mediocre.
Iowans have 5,193 structurally deficient bridges, while their Wisconsin neighbors have 1,157.
The report includes these highlights in each sector.
Water and Environment
Dams again earned a grade of D. "The average age of the 84,000 dams in the country is 52 years old," the report says. "The nation’s dams are aging, and the number of high-hazard dams is on the rise." More than 4,000 dams are considered deficient.
The grade for drinking water improved slightly to a D, but about 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States attest to the system's age and disrepair. Some systems are more than a century old.
Cleanup of hazardous waste has continued, but annual funding for Superfund site cleanup is estimated to fall $500 million short of what is needed.
The Crab Orchard Dam in Illinois is one of 84,000 dams in the U.S. The average age of these structures is 52 years old; more than 4,000 are considered deficient.
Levees again drew a near-failing grade of D- in 2013. The report notes that the nation’s 100,000 miles of levees were mostly built to protect farmland, but are now increasingly protecting developed communities.
Solid waste, a relative bright spot, earned the highest grade of B-. Americans recycled or composted 34 percent of their trash in 2010, up from 14.5 percent in 1980.
The grade for wastewater systems improved slightly to a D, with capital investment needs (led by pipes) estimated at $298 billion over the next 20 years.
In aviation, the number of commercial flights was about 33 million higher in 2011 than in 2000, stressing the system with major ripple effects to the economy. Grade: D.
More than 200 million trips are taken daily across deficient bridges in the nation’s 102 largest metro regions, the report said. One in nine bridges nationwide is rated as structurally deficient, while the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is currently 42 years.
To eliminate the nation’s bridge upgrade and repair backlog by 2028 would require an annual investment of $20.5 billion, while only $12.8 billion is being spent currently. Grade: C+.
Although U.S. bridges have an average age of 42 years, many are much older.
Much of the inland waterways system has not been updated since the 1950s, and more than half of the locks are over 50 years old, ASCE reports. Barges are stopped for hours each day, with an average of 52 daily service interruptions. Grade: D-.
Ports, a new category for 2013, debuted with a grade of C. More than 95% (by volume) of overseas trade produced or consumed by the U.S. moves through its ports. More than $46 billion in improvements are planned through 2016, but federal funding is declining.
Railroads are experiencing a resurgence for both passenger and freight service. In 2012, Amtrak recorded its highest year of ridership with 31.2 million passengers. Since 2009, capital investment from both freight and passenger railroads has exceeded $75 billion, the report says, giving rail the greatest improvement of any sector. Grade: C+.
Roads improved to a D this year, reflecting increased investment at all government levels. However, funding is widely expected to decline. Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion in annual capital investment is needed to significantly improve conditions and performance.
Transit stayed stuck at a D as agencies struggled to balance increasing ridership with declining funding. "Many transit agencies are struggling to maintain aging and obsolete fleets and facilities amid an economic downturn that has reduced their funding, forcing service cuts and fare increases," the report said.
Some of America's current electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems date to the 1880s, the report says.
"Investment in power transmission has increased since 2005, but ongoing permitting issues, weather events, and limited maintenance have contributed to an increasing number of failures and power interruptions," it said.
Permitting and siting issues threaten about 17,000 planned miles of additional high-voltage transmission lines and significant oil and gas pipelines over the next five years. Grade: D+.
What to Do?
In addition to assessing conditions and assigning grades, the report also makes recommendations for how to improve the grim picture it paints.
Those recommendations amount to a clarion call for reliable, increased, long-term investment in infrastructure.
"The 2013 Report Card demonstrates that we can improve the current condition of our nation’s infrastructure—when investments are made and projects move forward, the grades rise," ASCE says.
"For example," the report says, "greater private investment for efficiency and connectivity brought improvements in the rail category; renewed efforts in cities and states helped address some of the nation’s most vulnerable bridges; and, several categories benefited from short-term boosts in federal funding."
The report says infrastructure investment boosts long-term economic growth through increased GDP, employment and exports.
"The reverse is also true," it adds. "Without prioritizing our nation’s infrastructure needs, deteriorating conditions can become a drag on the economy.
"We must commit today to make our vision of the future a reality—an American infrastructure system that is the source of our prosperity."