In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

U.S. infrastructure crumbling

Posted by smeddum on January 29, 2009

Jan 28, 2009 07:05 PM in  

Katherine Harmon 

The nation’s roads, bridges, levees, schools, water-supply and other infrastructure are in such bad shape that it would take $2.2 trillion over five years to bring them up to speed. But even that huge chunk of change would only raise their grade from a “D” average to a “B,” according to the latest “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” released today by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). 

“We’ve been operating on a patch-and-pray system,” says ASCE President D. Wayne Klotz. That is, patch something and pray that it holds up – instead of providing regular improvements for aging facilities.

Like a car, he notes, if you keep skipping oil changes and ignoring the funny clanking noise, it’s going to be a lot more expensive to fix the major problems happen down the proverbial road.  In fact, the current estimate of $2.2 trillion is 70 percent more than the $1.8 trillion the ASCE estimated it would cost to bring the U.S. infrastructure up to par four years ago. And the D grade has remained the same. 

“It’s the kind of report card you would have expected on the eve of the collapse of the Roman Empire,” says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank in New York. “It’s not the kind of grade you want to bring home to Mom.” 

Flynn says a major problem is that we take the infrastructure for granted, which makes it difficult to generate awareness until there’s a major event, such as the 2007 fatal bridge collapse in Minneapolis or levee failures during deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  

“There’s no sex appeal to invest in it, so we don’t,” he says. 

Among those receiving D-minus grades: roads, levees, drinking water facilities (leaky water pipes lose about 7 billion gallons of clean water in the U.S. daily, according to the report) and inland waterways. Solid waste was at the top of the class, earning a C-plus – the same grade it received on the last report card – because about a third of the millions of tons of garbage generated in the U.S. annually is recycled or otherwise repurposed

Klotz says the report card, issued every four years since 1998, was released two months earlier than usual this year in the hope that it might encourage lawmakers to fork over more federal funds (in the pending $825 billion stimulus package) to overhaul the near-failing system. 

Following are the ASCE infrastructure grades, which were  based on an analysis of government records by a panel of engineers. 

Aviation D
Bridges C
Dams     D
Drinking Water D-
Energy D+
Hazardous Waste D
Inland Waterways D-
Levees D-
Public Parks & Recreation C-
Rail C-
Roads D-
School D
Solid Waste C+
Transit D
Wastewater D-

Overall: D

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