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A US Infrastructure Report Card 2017 preview

March 06, 2017

By Dave Dargie

An insider’s look at grading America’s infrastructure

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) quadrennial Infrastructure Report Card will be released later this week. Its purpose is to provide an unbiased assessment of infrastructure conditions and needs in America across 14 categories, including roads, bridges, dams, schools, drinking water, and airports.

ASCE’s role in facilitating these efforts is that an independent professional organization allows the process to be impartial, and the findings and recommendations to be considered without political bias. Conducted every four years, this process has worked effectively since its inception, and has been widely supported throughout the industry.

How will we do in 2017? Clues can be found in the state-level reports which feed the national grades. Based on my observations, as a long time “grader” for Maine’s airport infrastructure, we still have much room for improvement.

Helicopter view of highway interchange in Los Angeles, California.

What does the report card grade?

Here’s how the grading process works. Each state’s ASCE chapter reaches out to experts across key categories to help assess infrastructure in their state. After an extensive research and collaboration process, the team grades their assigned category based on current conditions and funds needed for facility modernization and improvement.

The individual category reports are consolidated into the State Infrastructure Report Card. In Maine, our ASCE chapter presents the report card to the state legislature to heighten their awareness of current infrastructure deficiencies, and in hopes of securing increased public funding to address current infrastructure needs.

The state reports proceed to the national level, where experts examine each infrastructure category and prepare the final report card. Each category receives a grade, and the nation gets a GPA. In 2013, our national GPA was a D+.

When the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card is released on March 9, I believe that, once again, the consensus will be that funding in every category is not where it must be.

A Maine microcosm

Along with my Stantec colleague Ervin Deck, I had the opportunity to co-author this year’s Report Card for Maine Airports. Our committee gave Airports a “C+”—just slightly better than the “C-” that the overall condition in the state received. The lack of progress since the 2013 report card is linked in part to diminished federal funding for Maine airports over the last four years. The cost of planning, designing and constructing our nation’s infrastructure naturally escalates, but relative funding has remained stagnant, and in actuality has decreased when inflation is considered.

We concluded that budget shortfalls in many communities, coupled with a doubling of local match for federal programs (from 2.5% to 5% since 2012) have left many airport sponsors chronically short of project funding. An additional concern since 2012 is the sharp increase in airspace obstructions precluding safe access to some airports by planes during times of inclement weather and nighttime operations. The latter condition is most likely attributable to reduced funding for maintenance.

It’s no secret that infrastructure is beginning to show its age more than ever. An overwhelming majority of our nation’s roads, bridges, airports, and water systems were built more than 50 years ago—at a time when the population was less than half of what it is today. Consider the Tobin Bridge—the longest bridge in New England at 2.25 miles. When it opened in 1950, 8.6 million vehicles crossed it in that first year. Today, that number is about 30 million vehicles. Infrastructure decades ago simply was not designed to accommodate the escalated volume it does today.

My part in the grading system focused on airport infrastructure needs at the 35 airports in Maine that are part of the national transportation system. We looked at seven measurable conditions using quantifiable data that can be reexamined in the future as a means of measuring change. The recently improving economy and increase in construction costs have exacerbated the situation by eroding the value (dollars allocated) of the federal program in relation to inflation. Will this problem worsen or will it improve? Will industry and government find a solution? Or will the problem be passed along to our next generation?

What Now?

A high schooler might try to convince you that a C+ is acceptable … and they’d have a valid point. “Mom, it’s not failing!” But deteriorating infrastructure only continues to deteriorate when it is neglected, until it is ultimately beyond the point of repair.

And why should people care? Because the state of our infrastructure impacts every American from both a financial and a safety perspective. The efficiency of our airports and other infrastructure networks are essential to maintaining a strong national economy. Air traffic delays precipitated by insufficient airport facilities or lapses in navigational systems have financial impacts at many levels. Such deficiencies may also equate to potential hazards to the traveling public. All too often the nightly news subjects us to a tragic story associated with our aging bricks and mortar. Deteriorating roads and potholes, ruptured water and natural gas lines, railroad derailments, failed guardrails on bridges, and as discussed during the recent US elections, our “third-world” airports. 

The investment gap for infrastructure improvement is too large to be ignored. Long a source of national pride, America's infrastructure is in critical need of repair. Ironically, the federal spending on the issue has decreased by 9% in the past decade. The report card process is an objective and visible representation of the current state of our infrastructure, and a good opportunity to provide our policymakers with the necessary information to make good, educated, decisions.

As an engineer, I have always made public welfare a priority. For those of us in this profession, it’s our role and responsibility to focus on such details to ensure the general public can safely and peacefully enjoy what society has to offer.

  • Dave Dargie

    Dave’s specialized in airfield design and construction administration activities.

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