John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The nation's engineers surprise everyone with a slightly less dismal outlook on the state of our infrastructure.
The report card for America's infrastructure finally arrived today, and at first glance it looks as if the country's managers won't be getting dessert for a month. The country's infrastructure received an overall grade of "D+" from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which releases its "report card" every four years assessing the condition of roads, airports, mass transit, the electric grid and other vital organs of national health.
The grade actually represents progress over the "D" that ASCE stuck the country with in 2009. The engineers behind the 2013 report say this still signifies "poor" infrastructure that's subject to "significant deterioration" and a "strong risk of failure." No doubt, they are correct. But as Brad Plumer notes over at Wonkblog, while the ASCE is highly qualified to point out and list all of the engineering deficiencies in our infrastructure, it's much less skilled at crafting policy prescriptions or spending proposals.
The ASCE estimates that raising America's grade to a "B," defined "adequate for now," would require $3.6 trillion in investment by 2020, which is $1.6 trillion more than what's now slotted for infrastructure repair. But of course, it's not exactly shocking that a membership group made up of engineers would promote trillions in additional spending on civil-engineering projects. And it's worth remembering that a "D+" is actually the best grade the ASCE has handed out in more than 15 years.
This year's report card was generated by about 30 engineers and took into account 16 sectors of infrastructure, ranking on things such as physical condition, ability to meet capacity demands, funding and public safety. Where does America perform highest? It turns out the country is quite competent in taking out the trash: Solid-waste handling received a "B-" for a nationwide recycling rate of 34 percent (double that of 1980) and a per-capita garbage-generation rate that is holding level or even slightly declining
And now for the many shortcomings identified by the engineers:
Hazardous waste: "D+"
Funding for the cleanup of nasty Superfund areas is behind by as much as $500 million, according to ASCE, with more than 400,000 brownfields needing attention and an "unknown number of potential sites yet to be identified." In no surprise, New Jersey comes out on top of the most polluted states with 114 hazardous-waste sites, and is followed by California, New York and Pennsylvania.
Drinking water: "D"
While the quality of America's drinking water is generally fine, the system carrying it is creaky and prone to mass failure, with some pipes dating back to the Civil War. Each year the country suffers about 240,000 water-main breaks that in turn disrupt business and transportation. Fixing this huge plumbing problem could take more than $1 trillion, say the engineers, a cost that might eventually be managed by hiking the prices for clean water.
America today has about 14,000 dams that fall under the category of "high hazard," meaning that if anything goes wrong there could be a significant loss in life. (Missouri alone has 1,588 of them.) The number of high-hazard dams will only increase as more and more of these barriers enter decrepitude; the average age of an American dam is already 52 years old. Upgrading these crucial structures will take about $21 billion, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
As any New Orleans native can testify, the country's levee system is less than perfect. Many of these structures were originally built to protect farmland, but because of development now shield suburban communities from massive walls of water. Thus the stakes are high to ensure that the roughly 100,000 miles of levees in America – many of unknown condition – are in working order. Cost: About $100 billion, as per the estimate of the National Committee on Levee Safety.
More and more people are flying, and the aviation system is struggling to keep up with demand. Say the engineers: "The cost of airport congestion and delays to the national economy was $21.9 billion (adjusted to 2010 dollars) in 2007. If current funding levels are maintained, the FAA further estimates that the cost will rise from $24 billion in 2012 to $34 billion in 2020 and can be expected to reach $63 billion by 2040."
Other grades include a "C+" for bridge infrastructure , "D+" for energy, "C-" for public parks and recreation, "C+" for railways and a big fat "D" for roads. Read the whole thing here, and you can also get it as an app for your phone or tablet.