On Record: Six months from now

The construction industry has been remarkably restrained following the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse. No one wants to be a know-it-all after such tragedy.

But I know there’s more than a few of us muttering, “we told you so” under our breath.

During the days that followed the Milwaukee collapse, the American Society of Civil Engineers found their 2005 infrastructure report card devoured by the media. The origins of this report card, which ASCE began in 1998 and now repeats on a four-year cycle, tell an instructive story.

In its initial report card, ASCE revisited the 1988 Reagan-era document “Fragile Foundations: A Report on America’s Public Works,” produced by the now-defunct National Council on Public Works Improvement.

“Fragile Foundations” was prompted in part by the 1983 bestseller “America in Ruins.” Congress wondered: Was our infrastructure really as bad as the book’s authors Pat Choate and Susan Walter alleged?

Well, no, said the government-created council, but things were serious and getting worse. To illustrate this, “Fragile Foundations” included an infrastructure report card. Ten years later, ASCE picked up the banner. What grades would the various infrastructure segments get in 1998?

The news then was not good. Highways had gone from a C-plus to D-minus; drinking water from a B-minus to a D; wastewater from a C to D-plus. And the 2005 report card showed further degradation, with an overall GPA of D.

From an infrastructure perspective, the 1980s look pretty darn good compared to today. Not only was our system in better shape, it seemed to have lots of attention.

But when you look more closely, infrastructure has never had an attention deficit, just an action deficit. The Road Information Program alone has released more than 50 national and 500 state reports since its inception in 1971.

Despite all the reports, position papers, academic publications and editorials on our system’s dire condition, there’s a stack of statistics that underline this ongoing action deficit. We now spend only $30 per capita today on road construction, compared with the $170 per capita we spent in 1970. We have a shortfall of $11 billion annually to replace aging drinking water systems. EPA estimates we must invest $390 billion over the next 20 years to replace existing wastewater systems and build new ones to meet population demands.

Now infrastructure is in a new era of attention. It might be easy to lean back and think, “ah, finally we’ll get something done.” Fame, however, is much more fleeting than it was in the 1980s.

So, six months from now, let’s all check around. Where have all the television cameras and microphones gone? Will some stick-to-your-ribs things have occurred on this issue or will it once again get shrugs and turned backs?

While infrastructure probably won’t be on the front burner, it should still be in the kitchen – not only six months from now, but at least for the foreseeable future. The last thing it – or the people who died in the bridge collapse – deserves is this year’s Yesterday’s News Award.