The devil is in the details of America’s second consecutive D+ from ASCE if we’re to learn and move forward
By Sergio Flores
Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is tasked with presenting a grade for U.S. infrastructure. The report card looks at 16 different sectors of America’s infrastructure, such as aviation, bridges, dams, energy, etc., and presents each section with an individual grade. Together, they make a cumulative grade for the overall state of America’s infrastructure. For 2017, ASCE presented America’s overall infrastructure a D+.
Receiving a D+ isn’t a shock. The last ASCE Report Card in 2013 gave our infrastructure the same cumulative grade. Although the cumulative grade was the same, certain sectors did receive higher grades, but others received lower grades than the previous report card. Unfortunately, in four years, very little has changed.
Our country has seen more disasters similar to the water crisis in Flint, Mich. this year, managing to keep our ailing infrastructure in national spotlight in this post-election era after both candidates made infrastructure a key point in their agenda. The headlines have made the derelict condition of our current infrastructure apparent in a way the grade of D+ doesn’t seem to. Early this year, the tallest dam in the U.S. (the 770 foot tall Oroville Dam in Northern California) experienced record-rain, causing the dam’s main spillway to rupture and forced officials to use an emergency spillway. The dam’s ‘60s design and construction was credited as the problem. On the other side of the country, a massive fire underneath Atlanta’s freeway viaduct I-85 resulted in a segment of the viaduct collapsing. Repairs are currently undergoing.
As our infrastructure continues to deteriorate, and we need to address this thoughtfully. Long-term thinking and modernizing infrastructure will be vital to rebuilding our country in a resilient and sustainable way for generations to come.
Seven areas of the ASCE report have improved: hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, rail, schools, and wastewater. What contributed to their improvement over the last few years? A bit of everything. I was fortunate enough to have a discussion with ASCE’s Managing Director, Casey Dinges, for our featured interview for this issue. (Turn to the back of the book to read the abridged version, and go to www.americaninfrastructuremag.com for the interview in full.) “In the last four years, while there have been some encouraging signs, some states for example have stepped up and increased investments in the state level, if you look at it as a whole, the country has moved sideways and I think that’s why the grade didn’t change,” Dinges explained during our conversation. For the seven areas that did improve, he credited good, vocal leadership, thoughtful policy making, and investments.
Ports and rails saw some of the biggest improvements, largely because a large portion of this sector is managed by private money, which, over the years, has invested heavily in modernizing, updating, and maintaining infrastructure necessary for trade.
“I can’t place enough emphasis on the need for U.S. ports to modernize,” said Karla P. Gonzalez, deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Panama. “That same modernization needs to happen at other ports. The ports have to be ready and there has to be spending to accommodate that.”
CEO of Siemans USA, Judith Marks, commented, “We need infrastructure. We need access. We need access to ports and airports. We are at a unique junction in this country to double down on infrastructure and double-down on public-private partnerships. We think of infrastructure with a capital I.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is completely behind an increase in the gas tax in the federal fuels tax. Currently at an 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents on diesel, the gas tax has gone unchanged since the 1993. Raising this and adjusting it to inflation could prove to be extremely beneficial for our lack of funding in infrastructure. Local and state gas taxes are already ubiquitous. Counties nationwide have already implemented their own gas tax, accruing money to fix their crumbling roads. And the public doesn’t seem to mind, as they are voting for this. But remember, we need to think long term. With renewable energy growing at record speed, how long before a good portion of the cars are no longer fueled with gas? Would it really be fair to tax those that operate on gasoline-fueled cars versus those that have electrically operated cars? Probably not. VMTs, however, seem to be gaining traction and seem to offer a relatively fair way to tax. VMT, vehicle miles traveled tax, offers a fairer, more long-term solution for when the majority of cars are not operated by gas.
The opportunity for us as a country to fix our infrastructure and contribute to the economy (via construction jobs, materials, etc.) is an opportunity we need to take advantage of and not delay any further. President Trump’s $1 trillion investment is poised to be revolutionary and a great first step towards fixing our infrastructure, but details remain sketchy. Despite anyone’s party affiliation, I think we’re all aboard on rebuilding our infrastructure, and that is a great sign for the possibility of America’s progress.
Sergio Flores is an Editor for American Infrastructure magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.