Engineering group gives nation a 'D+' on infrastructure

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America's infrastructure improved slightly over the past four years but still rates only a grade of D+ because of its age and insufficient investment, a national engineering group reported today.

The American Society of Civil Engineers graded 16 categories of infrastructure, and only one -- solid waste -- earned a grade as high as B-. Public transit, roads and schools were graded D. Bridges got a C+. The worst grades, D-, went to inland waterways and levees.

The overall grade was an uptick from the society's last report, in 2009, when it awarded the nation a D. The slight improvement was driven in part by public and private investment in railroads, ports and the energy grid, and by the short-term boost in public spending from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus program.

"You can say 'Yes, we got better' but D-plus isn't very good," said Andrew W. Herrmann of Mt. Lebanon, past president of the organization, in an interview Monday. "A D-plus is not what a country that's supposed to be No. 1 in the world wants."

About 30 to 35 professional engineers worked for a year sifting through research and data and formulating the grades contained in the "2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure." The society has issued a report card every four years since 1998.

In a statement accompanying the report, the current president, Gregory E. DiLoreto, said: "If we want to create jobs, increase trade, and assure the safety of our children, then infrastructure investment is the answer. Infrastructure can either be the engine for long-term economic growth and employment or it can jeopardize our nation's standing if poor roads, deficient bridges and failing waterways continue to hurt our economy."

The report estimated that $3.6 trillion needs to be spent by 2020 to upgrade all 16 categories of infrastructure, or $1.6 trillion more than what current funding levels provide.

The report comes as Congress wrestles with legislation to keep the government operating beyond March 27. A House-passed continuing resolution would cut transportation funding, while a Senate version would preserve it at levels approved last year.

It also comes as the Pennsylvania Legislature prepares to tackle a transportation funding proposal by Gov. Tom Corbett.

"It's not just the federal government. State, local and private investment has to be made to improve our infrastructure," Mr. Herrmann said.

In its Pennsylvania section, the report said that the state has 5,540 structurally deficient bridges (which is tops in the nation); and 57 percent of roads are in poor or mediocre condition, costing the average motorist $341 in annual vehicle damage. The state needs to spend $17.9 billion to maintain and upgrade wastewater systems and $11.4 billion on drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years, it said.

It also cited state "success stories," including a new 500-kilovolt electric transmission line from southwestern Pennsylvania to northern Virginia; the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's new online system for issuing permits; and Pennsylvania American Water's $101 million upgrade to pumping, storage and transmission facilities along Becks Run Road and in the South Hills.

In awarding the highest of its national grades in the solid waste category, the society said that in 2010, Americans recycled 34 percent of their garbage, more than double the rate that existed in 1980.

Among the other findings:

• Forty-five percent of Americans have no access to public transit, and millions more have service that is inadequate. Ridership has increased nearly 10 percent in the past decade but transit agencies are struggling with deteriorating systems, obsolete vehicles and funding problems that have forced service cuts and fare increases.

• Forty-two percent of the nation's major urban highways are congested, causing an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually, and 32 percent of major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

• Spending on school construction has declined to about half the level that existed before the recession "while the condition of school facilities continues to be a significant concern for communities. Experts now estimate the investment needed to modernize and maintain our nation's school facilities is at least $270 billion or more."

• Much of the inland waterways system dates to the 1950s or earlier, and more than half of the locks are more than 50 years old. "Barges are stopped for hours each day with unscheduled delays, preventing goods from getting to market and driving up costs. There is an average of 52 service interruptions a day throughout the system. Projects to repair and replace aging locks and dredge channels take decades to approve and complete, exacerbating the problem."

Other category grades in the 2013 report: dams, D; drinking water, D; hazardous waste, D; wastewater, D; aviation, D; ports, C; rail, C+; public parks and recreation, C-; and energy, D+.

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Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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