AMERICA'S CRUMBLING INFRASTRUCTURE.

Author:Turner, Daniel S.
 
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It will take more than a trillion dollars to upgrade roads, bridges, mass transit, airports, schools, dams, water purity, and waste disposal facilities in the next century.

School Buildings literally are crumbling; more than half of U.S. roadways are in substandard condition; airports will face gridlock by 2004; and tens of thousands of people become ill each year from contaminated drinking water. Accordingly, it is fair to say the nation's infrastructure is in pretty bad shape. Without substantial help, the situation is not going to get any better.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has released a Report Card for America's Infrastructure, assigning letter grades for the nation's public infrastructure and environment. The ASCE gave the U.S. an average grade of "D," and said it will require more than one trillion dollars and a new national public-private partnership to fix it. The grades were determined by a panel of civil engineering experts who evaluated each category on the basis of condition and performance, capacity, and funding. The worst went to schools, which received an "F." The best grade was given to mass transit, which was rated a "C." Hazardous waste and roads got a "D-"; drinking water and dams a "D"; wastewater a "D+"; and bridges, solid waste, and aviation a "C-." By comparison, when the National Council on Public Works Improvement graded the condition of America's infrastructure in 1988, the overall rating was "C."

The nation's public works are public assets. All Americans have a stake in their upkeep and operation, and share in the expense of construction and maintenance. Infrastructure often is paid for through tolls, utility bills, special taxes on gasoline and airline tickets, or other user fees. Since everyone depends on a strong infrastructure, a portion of the cost to maintain it comes from general tax revenues. While some needs are being funded already through Federal, state, and local programs and user fees, the current poor condition of the infrastructure indicates that investment levels are clearly inadequate.

Through the years, the Federal government has continued to shift the financial burden for maintaining the infrastructure to the states. However, voters have been reluctant to support new taxes or bond issues to build desperately needed community schools or water treatment plants.

While many infrastructure problems stem from limited funding at all levels of government, several other factors are involved. As a society, the nation continues merely to patch up outdated and fragmented transportation systems instead of investing in innovative technologies, establishing better links between traditional transportation and mass transit, and encouraging new behaviors. It also focuses efforts on "end-of-the-pipe" solutions--cleaning up the hazardous waste after it has contaminated the environment--instead of reducing it at the source.

To help address some of these issues, the ASCE's research arm, the Civil Engineering Research Foundation, has developed a partnership among industry, government, and the academic community. The Partnership for the Advancement of Infrastructure and Its Renewal is designed to foster and move research innovations into practice, as well as produce longer-lasting solutions to America's infrastructure crisis. The following are among the problems that must be addressed:

ROADS AND BRIDGES

While passenger and commercial travel on highways has increased dramatically in the past 10 years, the U.S. has been seriously underinvesting in needed road and bridge repairs, even failing to maintain the substandard conditions currently existing. This is a dangerous trend that is affecting highway safety as well as the health of the economy.

Road conditions. More than half of America's urban and rural roadways (59%) are in poor, mediocre, or fair condition, reports the Federal Highway Administration (FHwA). Although this is a slight improvement from previous years, conditions remain at substandard levels. The FHwA ranks "poor" those roads in need of immediate improvement. "Mediocre" roads need improvement in the near future to preserve usability; "fair" will likely need improvement; "good" are in decent condition and will not require improvement in the near future; and "very good" have new or almost new pavement.

Road performance. Substandard road and bridge design, pavement conditions, and outdated safety features are a factor in 30% of all fatal highway accidents, according to the FHwA. Personal and commercial highway travel continues to increase at a faster rate than highway capacity, and the nation's roads cannot sufficiently support current or projected travel needs. Between 1970 and 1995, passenger travel nearly doubled in the U.S., and road use is expected to increase by nearly two-thirds in the next 20 years. Growth can be attributed to changes in the labor force, income, makeup of metropolitan areas, and other factors.

More than 70% of peak-hour traffic occurs in congested conditions. The cost to the economy--in wasted time and fuel--in just the 10 most congested urban areas is $34,000,000,000 each year. In addition, poor highway conditions hinder effective transport of goods that help support the American economy.

The investment needed merely to maintain current conditions is $263,700,000,000 over the next five years. It will take an additional $93,800,000,000 to improve them. That represents a five-year total of $357,500,000,000 in needs, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Bridge conditions. Of the nation's 581,862 bridges, 182,726 (31.4%) are rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete by the FHwA. A structurally deficient bridge is closed or restricted to light vehicles because of its deteriorated structural components. While not necessarily unsafe, these bridges must have limits for speed and weight. A functionally obsolete bridge has older design features and, while not unsafe for all vehicles, cannot safely accommodate current traffic volumes and vehicle sizes and weights. It will require $80,000,000,000 to eliminate the backlog of bridge deficiencies and maintain repair levels, according to the FHwA.

Solutions. Easing the increasing demands on the nation's transportation system and improving highway conditions, capacity, and safety are multifaceted tasks and are not restricted to building more roads and bridges. America must change its transportation behavior, increase investment at all levels of government, and make use of the latest technology. Cities and communities should be planned better to reduce dependence on personal vehicles for errands and work commuting, and businesses must encourage more flexible schedules and telecommuting. Other solutions include private-public partnerships (where appropriate) and multi-year capital and operating budgets.

Congress made great strides in meeting transportation funding needs in 1998. It passed the Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century, which provided $100,000,000,000 for maintenance and road repairs and $73,000,000,000 for new road construction over the next six years. Another $2,000,000,000 will go toward highway safety programs. Congress also ensured that all the money that is funneled into the Highway Trust Fund from gasoline taxes will be used exclusively for transportation improvements. Still, this funding is not enough to rescue the crumbling transportation network. Full repair of the nation's roads and bridges requires $437,000,000,000.

MASS TRANSIT

While investment has improved the level of transit service and some conditions in bus facilities and rail infrastructure, this has come at the expense of other categories in mass transit. There remains a significant backlog of overage buses and rail vehicles. In addition, the costs to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act amendments pose a new financial burden on transit providers. If the nation fails to invest adequately in transit, the level of service will suffer. This can lead to increased traffic congestion and air pollution and can impair the nation's "welfare-to-work" efforts since many low-income groups depend on public transportation to get to...

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