Nation’s infrastructure still ‘crumbling’

A tip from the American Society of Civil Engineers: Check bridges for cracks before proceeding.

In 2002, one in three urban bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to a postcard titled “Greetings from America’s crumbling infrastructure” distributed by the ASCE. The cards are being sent out to raise awareness of the organization’s upcoming 2005 report card on the nation’s bridges, roads, drinking water systems and other public works, which have shown little improvement since their D+ grade in 2001.

The new report card, to be released March 9, will probably reveal a continued decline of quality and public investment in each of the 12 categories ASCE examined, said Jeanette Brown, a member of the organization’s advisory council. She is also executive director of Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority and an adjunct professor of environmental engineering at Manhattan College.

“I don’t think you’ll see a huge improvement,” Brown said. Though the ASCE advisory council has two additional conference calls before it determines final grading for 2005, she expects the results to reflect funding decisions from the federal to municipal level.

Brown said the cost of government is going up, while budgets for infrastructure are being cut. “A lot of programs we were hoping to have reauthorized did not come to fruition,” she said.

Brown also said most investment in infrastructure has come in localized pockets, often after incidents such as sewage line breakage or massive blackouts such as the Northeast power grid failure in 2003.

“If they [the public] see what the report card says, then it becomes easier for the public to digest and understand,” she said. “They’ll begin to think about it a lot more.”

As part of ASCE’s promotion for its 2005 infrastructure report, the public was encouraged to submit photos of aging or damaged infrastructure. Brown said the photos will provide illustration for the organization’s findings.

Matt Jeanneret, vice president of communications with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said he would not be surprised if ASCE’s 2005 report card simply restated its 2001 findings.

“We’re not keeping up with investment necessary to keep pace with the nation’s transportation system,” Jeanneret said.

Jeanneret said the federal government, which currently supplies 45 percent of the nation’s transportation funding, recently cited a $375 billion need to maintain the condition of existing infrastructure. “The bills right now don’t even come close to that level,” he said.

The recent passage rate of 80 percent of state transportation ballot initiatives nationwide recognizes an obvious concern for transportation, said Jeanneret. This was a 40 percent increase from just two years prior.

“Transportation is one of the most local issues of all,” he said.

Oregon is one state experiencing an infrastructure funding increase because of the critical condition of its bridge system. The state’s department of transportation passed a $3 billion Transportation Investment Act, of which $1.3 billion was allocated to demolish and rebuild more than 90 state bridges.

“We’re fighting off one crisis at a time,” said Cindy Catto, public affairs manager with the Oregon chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America. She said the state’s 10-year gap in a gas tax increase – the only funding source for transportation – has choked infrastructure improvements.

Catto said Oregon’s decision to fund bridge repair and construction came only after contractors noticed cracks developing on passages essential for traffic. She said the problem is still far from being solved, something a tax increase could help do.

Jessica Harris Adamson, legislative affairs manager with the Oregon chapter of the AGC, said because the state government didn’t provide investments for bridge and road systems – many dating to the ’60s – the issue is becoming more pressing.

“It was a real loss of buying power,” Adamson said. “What we have seen in Oregon is that local areas have been acquiring local revenue to get things passed.”

“Repairing infrastructure is like changing the oil in your car. It helps you from having a breakdown.”

Patrick Beeson can be contacted at pbeeson@randallpub.comm..