Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Report Card on America’s Infrastructure

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, grades the infrastructure in the United States, from water mains, sewer systems and plants, power lines connected to homes and businesses and the electrical grid spanning the U.S.; the neighborhood streets and the national highway system, dams, rail roads, airports. Infrastructure is the foundation of our economy, connecting businesses, communities, and people, making us a first world country. For the U.S. economy to be competitive as a place of business, we need a first class infrastructure system – transportation systems that move people and goods efficiently and at reasonable cost by land, water, and air; transmission systems that deliver reliable, low-cost power from a wide range of energy sources; and water systems that deliver clean reliable water 24/7 and remove wastewater for treatment and often reuse.

Yet much of our nation’s infrastructure was built during the 20th century, expanded during the post-World War II period, and frankly taken for granted by Baby Boomers. For some time our infrastructure systems have failed to keep pace with the current and expanding needs, and investment in infrastructure had faltered as an unseen way to cut costs- until the systems fail. However, it seems the tide has begun to turn. The 2013 Report Card grades are in, and America’s cumulative GPA for infrastructure rose slightly to a D+ from the D we received in 2009. The grades in 2013 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 the rail systems due to an influx of private investment jumped from a C- to a C+. No categories saw a decline in grade this year.

Highlights from the national report:
The grade for drinking water improved slightly to a D. In many parts of the nation, much of the piping that delivers water to our homes and businesses is almost a century old, nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), though new technology is being demonstrated to extend the life of older piping systems. The United States still has one of the safest drinking water systems in the world, but in many communities the pace of water main replacement will have to increase. Even though pipes and mains are frequently more than 100 years old and in need of replacement, outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare because of the good treatment systems and positive pressure on the drinking water distribution systems.

The grade for wastewater improved slightly to a D. The ASCE estimates that $298 billion will be required over the next 20 years to maintain and upgrade the nation’s wastewater and stormwater systems. As in the water delivery systems pipes represent the largest capital need, three quarters of the costs. Fixing and expanding the network of pipes will reduce sanitary sewer overflows, combined sewer overflows, and other pipe-related issues like urban sinkholes. Investment in wastewater treatment plants will have to increase due to new regulatory requirements as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, expands mandated nutrient and sediment management standards and water recycling programs across in the nation. In the past five years EPA regulations have required cities to invest more than $15 billion in new pipes, plants, and equipment to eliminate combined sewer overflows. Stormwater management is still small compared with sanitary pipes and treatment plants, and its growth may be managed by Low Impact and Green Infrastructure strategies. Even with these lower cost strategies, EPA programs like the Chesapeake Bay TMDL will dramatically increase that investment in wastewater infrastructure during the coming decades, but may maintain and improve water quality even with a growing population.

The grade ASCE gave for solid waste was a big bright spot improving in 2013 to a grade of B-, the highest grade for any category. In 2010, Americans generated 250 million tons of trash. Of that, 85 million tons were recycled or composted. This represents a 34% recycling rate, a vast improvement from the 14.5% recycling rate in 1980. Per capita generation rates of waste have been steady over the past 20 years and have declined since 2006. Though there is plenty of room for improvement, a generation raised on “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” seems to be having a big impact.

The grade for energy remained at a D+ despite the boom in gas and oil due to weakness in the distribution systems. The weaknesses in the electrical grid were highlighted in the extended outages during the storms that pounded the east coast in the past two years especially in New Jersey and Maryland. Investment in power transmission has increased in recent years, but ongoing permitting issues, weather events, and limited maintenance have contributed to an increasing number of failures and power interruptions. Use of electricity in the U.S, has yet to regain the peak reached in 2007, but the demand for electricity, natural gas, and oil is forecast to increase in the next decades as the population increases and efficiency savings are used up. Though, recent booms in oil and gas production could supply the energy demand, regulation on carbon generation from electrical generation plants requiring replacement of a significant portion of the generation capacity and about 17,000 miles of additional high-voltage transmission lines (to expand the power grid and connect wind power generation farms and large solar power generation installations to the power grid) and significant oil and gas pipelines are needed to meet the demand for power and regulatory mandates.  Growing permitting and siting issues threaten construction of the generation and distribution systems needed.

Railroads are experiencing a resurgence in both freight transportation and passenger service. As a result freight and passenger rail have been investing heavily in their tracks, bridges, and tunnels as well as adding new capacity spending more than $75 billion since 2009. Increasing investment and utilization was highlighted by the purchase of Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC, the largest U.S. railroad, by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. That company alone spent $400 million on terminals in 2012 while a group of oil and gas pipeline operators, Plains All American Pipeline LP plans to spend about $1 billion on rail depot projects to substitute for stalled pipeline projects to move oil and gas from drilling sites to processing locations. Private investment resulted in the grade for rail moving up to a C+ in 2013.

Much of the transportation infrastructure-bridges, inland waterways, ports, roads, airports are far more visible and have a much higher public awareness of the needs of the systems, but are primarily funded by public monies. The nation’s infrastructure needs a strong representation for budget allocations because it is our future. The maintenance of the power grid and the water treatment and distribution systems have suffered from neglect due to the way that utility rates are calculated from costs. Regulated monopolies that supply electricity, water, sewage have been cutting maintenance capital budgets to cut overhead while maintaining or increasing profits while limiting rate increases.

Virginia’s 2013 report card has not yet been completed. We received an overall grade of D+ in 2009, but I am hopeful that when the new report is complete that we will have improved to match (or crush) the C- that Maryland received.  Maryland’s report card appears below. 
ASCE report card

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