March 21, 2013: America’s vital infrastructure continues to fail, but some improvement over the past four years demonstrates that solid investment can begin to turn things around.  That’s the take-away message of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) quadrennial Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, and it should serve as a call to elected officials to stop squabbling and start spending.

ASCE gave America’s infrastructure an overall grade of D+; a slight improvement over 2009’s grade of D.  Grades ranged from a high of B- for solid waste to a low grade of D- for America’s ports and inland waterways.  No category of infrastructure declined from its 2009 position, and a few, most notably those that saw the greatest investment, improved slightly.  Clearly, when concern about critical infrastructure systems is followed by appropriate investment, it is possible to move the ball down the field.

As it has in the past, ASCE has created a website devoted to the report, including a video introduction, a compelling executive summary, reports and videos about the state of 16 different infrastructure systems, and policy recommendations for moving forward.  The report’s authors call for increased leadership in infrastructure renewal; promotion of sustainability and resilience; and the development and funding of plans to maintain and enhance America’s infrastructure.

The report’s Energy, Water and Wastewater, Roads and Bridges, and Ports and Inland Waterways chapters may be of particular interest to Laborers and their signatory contractors because of the large number of projects and jobs these infrastructure assets can generate.  But all Americans, all businesses, and the entire national economy are affected by the current state of every one of the 16 different infrastructure areas covered by the Report.

As LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan recently pointed out in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, “this isn’t a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. There isn’t a single American who doesn’t benefit from and doesn’t want good roads and safe bridges, clean drinking water and efficient airports, waterways, abundant energy and good jobs.”  Speaking about the role the federal government can and should play in securing the integrity and strength of our country’s infrastructure, O’Sullivan also said,

Infrastructure is the foundation of our great nation. It was created with a strong federal role and it must be maintained and modernized with a strong federal role. Without a robust federal investment in our infrastructure networks, there isn’t enough private money alone to get the job done.

Sadly, at a time when sequestration has begun to slash critical federal programs, and budget hawks continue to fight necessary infrastructure investments, O’Sullivan, LIUNA, ASCE, and the many other individuals and organizations that have been calling for change are beginning to sound like broken records that are too often ignored.  Yet if the message has become repetitive, it is only because those who have the power to act continue to fail to do so, and as the ASCE report makes clear, this failure imperils us all.

Several videos on the ASCE Report Card site put our infrastructure under-investment crisis in very stark and clear terms.  In this video on energy, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jim Hoecker suggests that infrastructure failures could send us back in time.  “When you lose the Internet, you’re in 1979,” he says.  “If you lose the power system, you’re in 1879.”  ASCE President Gregory E DiLoreto acknowledges electric companies’ investment in the power grid, but cautions that “what we need is a strategy, over time, to bring [the grid] back into good condition.”

Anyone who drives regularly knows the delays, inconvenience, and cost of detours related to emergency road and bridge closures and repairs.  In a video about the state of America’s roads and bridges, a Pennsylvania state legislator estimates the potential impact that closure of one particular bridge in his district would have.

One bridge that carries 90,000 cars a day, the nearest detour is an 11-mile detour, so if that bridge had to shut down, we’d be looking at a million miles a day of extra traffic while that bridge was shut down and being rebuilt.”

The state of water and wastewater systems is the focus of another video, and, as DC Water General Manager George Hawkins points out, state and municipal water authorities often are caught between a rock and a hard place.  “The level of federal support for improving this infrastructure on a national basis has really declined,” he says, “and that’s despite the fact [that] there’s federal mandates driving a lot of our work.”

The message of ASCE’s report is clear, and familiar to all those who have worked on this issue for any length of time: infrastructure systems are vital to our economy, our nation, and our way of life.  Neglect them, and all of that declines.  Invest in them, and we secure a strong future for ourselves and generations to come.

Ed Rehfeld, Manager of Communications