U.S. Roads, Water, Utilities Decaying, Engineers Warn

RESTON, Virginia, September 4, 2003 (ENS) - The United States will have to spend at least $1.6 trillion over the next five years to renew the country's crumbling roads, bridges, drinking water systems and other public works, says a report card released today by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The engineers gave the nation's infrastructure a cumulative grade of "D+" for 12 infrastructure areas.

The report examining trends and assessing the progress and decline of America's infrastructure was prepared by a panel of 20 eminent civil engineers with expertise in a range of practice specialties. They investigated the condition of roads, bridges, mass transit, aviation, schools, drinking water, wastewater, dams, solid waste, hazardous waste, navigable waterways and energy systems.

The condition of these systems has shown little improvement since they were graded an overall D+ in 2001, with some areas sliding toward failing grades, concludes the ASCE 2003 Progress Report for America's Infrastructure.

"Time is working against our nation's infrastructure," said ASCE President Thomas L. Jackson. "Since we graded the infrastructure in 2001, our roads are more congested than ever, the number of unsafe and hazardous dams has increased, and our schools are unable to accommodate the mandated reductions in class size."


These broken New York City pipes are held together with duct tape. April 2002. (Photo courtesy Heather Gunter)
With a federal deficit of $450 billion, resources for infrastructure are growing scarce, the engineers said, yet the need for infrastructure investment has never been higher.

"The country's growing, sprawling population continues to overburden transportation, water and energy systems that reached capacity long ago," the engineers said.

The widespread failure of the electrical grid in the Northeast and Midwest on August 14 left more than 50 million people in the United States and Canada in the dark, and brought other infrastructure systems to a halt. New York City's subways were stopped in their tracks leaving millions of commuters stranded. Cleveland's water treatment facilities failed, and citizens could not boil water without electricity to kill pathogens in the water coming from their taps.

"While millions of Americans struggled to live without electricity for three days, millions more are still in the dark about the shaky state of our nation's infrastructure. Our transportation, water and energy systems haven't been maintained, let alone updated, to supply our ever increasing demands," said Jackson.

Roads, bridges and transit systems in all states are now in jeopardy, the engineers warn in their report. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, (TEA-21) is set to expire September 30, leaving the United States without a coordinated mandate for improving our nation's transportation system.

"TEA-21 reauthorization is critical in order to expand infrastructure investment, enhance infrastructure delivery, and maximize infrastructure effectiveness," Jackson said.


Workers contruct the new $100 million Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge across the Mississippi River linking Cape Girardeau, Missouri and East Cape Girardeau, Illinois. Completion is expected later this year. (Photo courtesy Missouri Department of Transportation)
"ASCE also encourages Congress to close the shortfall in transportation investment by increasing the user fee on gasoline by six cents. Studies repeatedly show voters support an increase in user fees as long as it goes directly toward improving infrastructure."

But the August blackout is being cited before a Congressional committee this week as the reason why gasoline prices across the country have peaked in the past two weeks, and Americans whose wallets are being squeezed at the pumps are less likely to support an increase in the gasoline user fee that would raise prices even higher.

Pat Natale, a civil engineer and executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said today that this year's report card reflects the same crumbling infrastructure that the engineers warned about in 2001, although much has changed in the past two years. "The downturn in the economy; the state and local budget crisis; and the aftermath of 9-11 are working against our nation's efforts to elevate infrastructure conditions to acceptable levels," he said.

"Of course," said Natale, "the more things change, the more they stay the same. In 2001, we were talking about rolling blackouts in California, and today we're talking about the Great Blackout of 2003."

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, national security became a top priority, and now state and local officials are being forced to choose between installing costly security measures and making long delayed infrastructure improvements.

"Americans' concerns about security threats are real, but so are the threats posed by crumbling infrastructure," Jackson said. "It doesn't matter if the dam fails because cracks have never been repaired or if it fails at the hands of a terrorist. The towns below the dam will still be devastated."

The forecast for the trends detailed in the 2003 Progress Report was based on condition and performance of each infrastructure category as reported by federal sources, capacity of infrastructure versus need, and current and pending investment of state, local and federal funding for infrastructure versus need, the engineers explained.

The idea of grading the U.S. infrastructure did not originate with the American Society of Civil Engineers. The first infrastructure report card was issued in 1988 by a presidential commission created to study and report on the state of our infrastructure, explained Natale. "They assigned an overall grade of C, and the title of their report "Fragile Foundations: A Report on America's Infrastructure" hinted at the shaky state of our infrastructure," he said.

"Based on our analysis," Natale said, "the grade for America's infrastructure slid from a C to D in 10 years."

Founded in 1852, ASCE represents more than 130,000 civil engineers worldwide and is America's oldest national engineering society.