Saving America’s Infrastructure

(from Maine Townsman, April 2009)
By Roger L. Kemp, PhD

The term “infrastructure” refers to the basic facilities and installations necessary for society to operate. These include transportation and communication systems (e.g., highways, airports, bridges, telephone lines, cellular telephone towers, post offices, etc.); educational and health facilities; water, gas, and electrical systems (e.g., dams, power-lines, power plants, aqueducts, etc.); and miscellaneous facilities such as prisons, asylums, national park structures, and other improvements to real property owned by government.

In the United States, the infrastructure components are divided into the private and public sectors. Public facilities are owned by the municipal, county, state, and federal governments. There are also many special district authorities, such as the Port Authority of New York and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) – the only professional membership organization in the nation that has graded our nation’s public infrastructure – recognizes 15 major categories of government infrastructure. These infrastructure categories include: Aviation, Bridges, Dams, Drinking Water, Energy, Hazardous Waste, Navigable Waterways, Parks and Recreation, Rail, Roads, Schools, Security, Solid Waste, Transit, and Wastewater.

Managing America’s Infrastructure and Fiscal Crises

All levels of government are facing a new era of capital financing and infrastructure management. Revenues that once were available for capital construction, restoration, and maintenance, have either diminished or evaporated entirely in recent years. Portions of the public infrastructure that were once adequate are now experiencing signs of distress, even decay, with no end in sight to the ongoing deterioration of our nation’s infrastructure.

Local and state, as well as the federal, governments are subject to unprecedented fiscal demands for public services in an environment of limited taxation and dwindling financial resources. State government deficits are increasing. At the same time, the federal deficit is at an all-time high – exacerbated by the fact that our nation is concurrently financing an undeclared war in the Middle East and suffering from a weakened economy. These negative fiscal circumstances, experts believe, are likely to continue for many years to come.

Congested highways, overflowing sewers, and corroding bridges, are constant reminders of the looming crisis that jeopardizes our nation’s prosperity and the quality of life for our citizens. With new grades published in 2005, the condition of our nation’s infrastructure has shown little to no improvement since receiving a collective grade of C- in 1988 -- and with some areas sliding toward failing grades.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure assesses the same categories as it did in the previous survey. The grade comparisons of America’s infrastructure between the ASCE’s original survey in 1988 and its most recent survey in 2005 are highlighted below.

• Aviation – Received a grade of B- in 1988, and a grade of D+ in 2005.

• Bridges – Received a grade of C+ in 1988, and a grade of C in 2005.

• Dams – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D in 2005.

• Drinking Water – Received a grade of B- in 1988, and a grade of D- in 2005.

• Energy – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D in 2005.

• Hazardous Waste – This category receive a grade of D in 1988 and in 2005.

• Navigable Waters – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D- in 2005.

• Parks & Recreation – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of C- in 2005.

• Rail – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of C- in 2005.

• Roads – Received a grade of C+ in 1988, and a grade of D in 2005.

• Schools – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D in 2005.

• Security – This category did not exist in 1988, and insufficient data is available to properly evaluate this category (i.e., this is a new category since 9/11/01).

• Solid Waste – Received a grade of C- in 1988, and a grade of C+ in 2005. This is the only infrastructure category to increase during its grade since the original “graded” evaluation some 17 years ago.

• Transit -–Received a grade of C- in 1988 and a grade of D+ in 2005.

• Wastewater – Received a grade of C in 1988, and a grade of D- in 2005.

In short, U.S. roads, bridges, sewers, and dams are crumbling and need a $1.6 trillion overhaul, but prospects for improvement are grim. This is the amount of money necessary over the next five years to restore and rebuild major components of our nation’s public infrastructure. The nation’s drinking water system alone needs a public investment of $11 billion annually to replace facilities and to comply with regulations to meet our future drinking water needs. Federal grant funding in 2005 was only 10% of this amount. As a result, aging wastewater systems are discharging billions of gallons of untreated sewage into surface waters each year, according to the ASCE’s report.

And the signs of our deteriorating infrastructure go on! Poor roads cost motorists $54 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, while American’s spent 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic jams. The country’s power transmission system also needs to be modernized, the report said. While demand continues to rise, transmission capacity failed to keep pace and actually fell by 2% in 2001. As of 2003, 27% of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient or obsolete, a slight improvement from the 28.5% in 2000. It is alarming to note, but since 1998 the number of unsafe dams in the country rose by 33% to more than 3,500.

A dozen national professional associations have officially endorsed the ASCE’s 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Some of these organizations include the:

• American Public Works Association (APWA),

• National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (NSSGA),

• U. S. Conference of Mayors (USCM),

• National Heavy and Highway Alliance (NHHA),

• American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA),

• Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO),

• National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), and

• American Shore and Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA).

Please refer to ASCE’s website for a complete listing.

National Leadership Needed

The views expressed by many experts who research and write on infrastructure issues point to a general agreement on the magnitude and complexity of this problem. However, little agreement exists on a consensus on how to achieve a comprehensive nationwide solution to restoring and maintaining America’s public infrastructure. One point, though, seems obviously clear: The necessary leadership and policy direction required to properly address this national issue must come from the highest level of government. It is only within a national policy framework that states, counties, and cities can work together to improve the current condition of our public works facilities. Local and state governments alone, because of their many diverse policies, multiple budget demands, and varied fiscal constraints, cannot be relied upon to achieve the comprehensive solution required to solve this national problem.

The prevailing philosophy of our national government has been to let the lower levels of government (states, counties, and cities) solve their own problems, regardless of the nature of their complexity or the magnitude of funds needed. If a solution is to be forthcoming, the political posture of our national government needs to become more positive and proactive. Assertive leadership from the federal government must make the difficult policy decisions, as well as approve the funding required, to solve our country’s infrastructure problem. Fundamental changes are needed to redirect national priorities about how public capital investments are made. Officials at all levels of government must recognize that they can no longer build public facilities without adequately maintaining them in future years.

The Future

As the severity of this issue escalates and citizens become more aware of the increased costs of postponing a decision on public infrastructure, taxpayers may become more politically involved in solving this issue in the future. Local taxpayers cannot be expected, however, to foot the entire bill for a solution, since the majority of our country’s capital assets have been constructed over the past several decades -- some over a century ago – and frequently with the assistance of grant funds from our federal government. Cities, counties, and states have relative degrees of wealth based on their taxing capacity, bonding levels and ratings, and budgetary reserves. Because of this, many lower levels of government do not have the financial capability, even with increased taxation, to adequately address those issues related to restoring and maintaining America’s infrastructure.

This bullet is “too big to bite” by lower levels of government alone.

It is safe to say that most citizens throughout the country already feel overtaxed by all levels of government. Even thought citizens may be willing to assist financially, a major redirection of federal government funds will be required for a truly comprehensive and coordinated nationwide response to our country’s outstanding infrastructure problems and issues.

Even with some additional taxes and user fees, funding will be limited from the lower levels of government. For this reason, argue those who deal with infrastructure issues, national priorities must be established for the replacement and restoration of capital facilities for all levels of government, starting with those projects that are necessary to ensure the public’s security, health, and safety. Funds from existing federal grant programs must be targeted for infrastructure projects nationwide - such as from less-important operational programs with limited or only special interest constituencies.

Our nation is not “on the road to ruin,” as some experts explain, but merely going through the transition period required to properly sort-out and arrive at a politically acceptable long-term solution to this critical and complex policy issue that plagues all levels of government – federal, state, county, and city alike.

If our country’s infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate even further in the future, possibly to the point of decay, the cost of resolving this issue will escalate significantly in future years for all taxpayers. If this happens, economic development programs will also continue to suffer, and the revenues they could generate will not be available to assist in restoring our public infrastructure.

For these reasons, President Obama should make the restoration of America’s public infrastructure a national funding priority.

Roger Kemp is a career city manager, having served in California, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He is Past-President of the Connecticut Town & City Management Association, and the Monterey Bay (CA) and Connecticut Chapters of the American Society for Public Administration. Dr. Kemp has authored, edited, and been a contributing author to nearly 50 books focusing on cities, including their infrastructure. Roger can be reached via email at