March 9, 2017

Civil engineer group gives infrastructure a D+ grade, same as 2013

Roads get D; ports, bridges get C+; rails get top grade of B.

By DC Velocity Staff

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) today issued the nation's infrastructure a "D+" grade for the second time in four years, meaning the massive network encompassing everything from highways, rails, and ports to the water supply and the energy grid remains in fair to poor condition, but with capacity deteriorating near the point of failure.

The nation's roads, one of 16 infrastructure categories, but perhaps the most visible because virtually every American uses and relies on them, received a "D" grade. The nation's inland waterways also received a "D," while bridges and ports each received "C+" grades. The U.S. rail network, which encompasses the freight rail system and the Amtrak passenger rail operation, was the only category to receive a "B" grade, largely on the back of the significant annual investments made by freight railroads, which rely primarily on their own revenues and borrowing to maintain and improve their facilities.

ASCE called for a ramp-up of annual investment to an equivalent of 3.5 percent of U.S. GDP, compared with current levels of 2.5 percent. With US GDP coming in at $18.5 trillion in 2016, this would translate into an increase to $647.5 billion from $462.5 billion. The Trump administration is fast-tracking efforts to develop an infrastructure spending plan that is likely to approach $1 trillion a year. Late last month, the White House appointed DJ Gribbin, former general counsel of the Department of Transportation (DOT) under President George W. Bush, as special assistant to the president for infrastructure policy.

The group repeated its call for increases in federal taxes on diesel fuel and gasoline, levies that have not been changed since 1993. It also urged that policymakers take a closer look at the merits of a tax imposed on the number of miles a vehicle travels, noting that such a tax would capture consumption from electric-powered cars and trucks, and would take into account the enhanced per-mile fuel-efficiencies found in later-model vehicles.

The 2017 report card represents the first time that ASCE has embedded a discussion about funding in its broad conclusions. The group issued its first report card in 1998, and since 2001 has published its findings every four years. The 2017 report card was drafted by a team of 28 civil engineers, who grade each infrastructure category using eight criteria.

Among the findings:

  • The average delay per lock on the nation's inland waterway system nearly doubled to 121 minutes from 64 minutes between 2000 and 2014. Nearly half of all vessels experienced some form of delay in 2014, the last period for which full-year data was available. The report lauded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the 25,000-mile network, for utilizing increased funding levels from government and users to expedite the completion of various lock and dam rehabilitation projects.
  • About 9 percent of the country's 614,387 bridges were in such poor condition last year as to be classified structurally deficient, according to the report. On average, there were 188 million trips per day across structurally deficient bridges, ASCE said. The number of bridges declared structurally deficient has been decreasing, the report found. However, the age of the typical span continues to rise, with 40 percent of bridges 50 years old or more, according to the report.
  • Port productivity declined by 25 percent or more over the past 10 years due to an increasingly congested landside network connecting ports, railroads, and highways ASCE said, citing port-industry data. Under the five-year federal transport-funding bill signed into law in late 2015, landside connections are scheduled to receive $11 billion in new funding. However, those intermodal connections are expected to require $29 billion in funding over that time, according to the report.
  • More than two out of every five miles of America's interstate highways near urban areas are congested, and traffic congestion costs the U.S. about $160 billion a year in delays and wasted fuel, according to ASCE. One out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition, the report found. There is currently a $420 million capital backlog to pay for highway repair, the report found.

Capital allocated to fixing road infrastructure would be money well spent, according to the report. Citing data from DOT's Federal Highway Administration, ASCE said that each dollar spent on road, highway, and bridge improvements returns $5.20 in the form of lower vehicle maintenance costs; reduced traffic delays and fuel consumption; improved safety; lower road and bridge maintenance costs; and carbon emission cuts due to improved traffic flow.

Statements from trade groups reflected the sobering realities facing the millions of infrastructure stakeholders. The grades "provide yet another example of what occurs when a nation underinvests in the critical infrastructure systems that support economic development and quality of life," said Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Wright said long-term, structural funding changes that go beyond even the five-year intervals mandated under the 2015 funding law are needed.

Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), said the slight improvement in port grades (to C+ from a C in 2013) indicates that while some progress has been made, much work still needs to be done. Nagle acknowledged the poor condition of landside connections, contending that the federal government isn't adequately investing in those links to keep freight moving efficiently. The mediocre grade "reinforces our view that the federal government is still underinvesting in the landside and waterside connections to ports," Nagle said.

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