by Roger L. Kemp, PhD

The term “infrastructure” refers to the basic facilities and installations necessary for society to operate.

These include public transportation and communication systems (highways, airports, bridges, telephone lines, cellular telephone towers, post offices); educational and health facilities; water, gas, and electrical systems (dams, power lines, power plants, aqueducts); and such miscellaneous facilities as prisons, national park structures, and other improvements to real property owned by higher levels of 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 special district authorities, such as the Port Authority of New York and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, among many others.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) — the only professional membership organization in the nation that grades our nation’s public infrastructure — recognizes and evaluates the major categories of our government’s infrastructure: aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit, and wastewater.

Managing and Financing America’s Infrastructure

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 our national 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 public infrastructure.

Congested highways, overflowing sewers, and corroding bridges, are constant reminders of the looming infrastructure crisis that jeopardizes our nation’s economic prosperity as well as the quality-of-life for our citizens. With new grades just published in 2017, the condition of our nation’s infrastructure has shown little to no improvement since receiving a collective grade of a C- in 1988 and with some areas even sliding toward failing grades.

ASCE’s 2017 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure assesses the same categories as it did in their previous survey. The grade comparisons of the various categories of America’s infrastructure between ASCE’s original 1988 survey, and its most recent survey in 2017, are highlighted below in alphabetical order:

  • Aviation – Received a grade of B- in 1988, and a grade of D in 2017.
  • Bridges – Received a grade of C+ in 1988, and a grade of C+ in 2017.
  • Dams – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D in 2017.
  • Drinking Water – Received a grade of B- in 1988, and a grade of D in 2017.
  • Energy – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D+ in 2017.
  • Hazardous Waste – This category receive a grade of D in 1988 and D+ in 2017.
  • Inland Waterways – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D in 2017.
  • Levees – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D in 2017.
  • Parks and Recreation – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D+ in 2017.
  • Ports – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of C+ in 2017.
  • Rail – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of B in 2017.
  • Roads – Received a grade of C+ in 1988, and a grade of D in 2017.
  • Schools – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D+ in 2017.
  • Solid Waste – Received a grade of C- in 1988, and a grade of C+ in 2017. This is the only infrastructure category to increase its grade since the original “graded” evaluation was done nearly 30 years ago.
  • Transit – Received a grade of C- in 1988, and a grade of D- in 2017.
  • Wastewater – Received a grade of C in 1988, and a grade of D+ in 2017. The average public infrastructure grade for our nation was a C- in 1988 and a D+ in 2017.

The most recent Infrastructure Report Card reveals that we made some incremental progress towards restoring our nation’s public infrastructure. But it has not been enough! As of 2017, America’s cumulative GPA is once again a D+, the same as it was four years ago after the last evaluation of our nation’s infrastructure.

The 2017 grades range from a B for Rail to a D- for Transit, illustrating the clear impact of our public investment — or lack thereof — in our nation’s infrastructure categories.

National Leadership Is Needed

The prevailing philosophy of our national government has been to let the lower levels of government (states, counties, and cities) solve their own infrastructure problems, regardless of the nature of their complexity or the magnitude of the funds needed. If a solution is to be forthcoming, the political posture of our government needs to become more positive and proactive.

Assertive federal government leadership, like the President and the Congress, 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 infrastructure 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.

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Dr. Roger L. Kemp, PhD., has been a career city manager in Connecticut, California and New Jersey. He has been an author, editor, and contributing author to nearly 50 books focusing on America’s cities, including their public infrastructure. He is a Practitioner in Residence, Department of Public Management, University of New Haven, and can be reached via his website or at rlkbsr@snet.net.  This article first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of CT Planning and appears here with permission of the author and CT Planning, a publication of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Planning Association.

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