Crisis: U.S. infrastructure

Crisis: U.S. infrastructure

October 29th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Some folk - especially the esthetically or math challenged - might not pay much attention to civil engineers or their profession, but everyone, realize it or not, depends on the skill and quality of their craft. It's no stretch, in fact, to say that the quality of life we enjoy and hope to enjoy depends directly on the work of the nation's civil engineers. That's nothing new. That's been true since the earliest of civilizations.

Just think about it. Egypt and the pyramids. Greece and the Parthenon. Rome, and the Appian Way. China and the Great Wall. And more recently: The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. The Channel Tunnel or "Chunnel" between England and France. The Panama Canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Petronas Towers in Malaysia. The Interstate highway system in the United States. Those projects and many more offer a historical portrait of how civil engineering has served mankind through the centuries.

That picture, to be sure, is a positive one. There is, of course, a down side to civil engineering. Even the best-designed and built examplars of the craft can deteriorate or fail. That's especially so in the contemporary, industrialized world where bridges, airports, water and waste treatment systems, highways and dams are subject to more strain and used longer than originally intended. It is particularly true in the United States, where the increasing frailty of national infrastructure - the lock at the Chickamauga Dam here is an example - has reached alarming levels.

Fair-minded assessment

The situation is dire. A fair-minded assessment of the danger is offered by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which regularly evaluates U.S. infrastructure on a state-by-state basis and issues a national report card. The most recent GPA is a disappointing and dispiriting D. The real state of U.S. infrastructure might be worse than that. Some states already are approaching failing grades in many of the areas examined in the report.

The deterioration is not limited to one region of the country or certain type of infrastructure. Problems are evident in every state and category - bridges, dams, waterways, energy, water and waste systems, transit (road, rail and aviation) and schools, among them. Tennessee and Georgia don't escape harsh marks.

In Tennessee, roads, wastewater management and schools are the top three infrastructure concerns, according to the most recent report card. The problems, though, are not limited to that trio of woes; they are far more extensive. Some examples: About a fifth of the state's roads are in poor or mediocre condition; about a fifth of its bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete; 148 dams are classified as high hazard, which means that failure would cause loss of life and extensive property damage; and the state has billions of dollars in unmet drinking water, wastewater and park and recreation needs.

In Georgia, the top infrastructure concerns are roads, drinking water and wastewater management. More than 40 percent of the state's major urban highways are congested; a about a fifth of its bridges are deficient or obsolete; 457 bridges are categorized as high hazard; and the state has billions of dollars in unmet drinking water and wastewater needs.

Sadly, Tennessee and Georgia are not alone in their needs. Though problems and issues vary from state to state and region to region, no state reached what could be considered honor roll status on ASCE report cards. Action to address those problems will be expensive. The cost? Experts say well over a $2 trillion investment in the next five years just to tackle the most serious issues. The long-term cost will be multiple of that number.

Things will fall apart

The nation can no longer avoid the need to begin meaningful infrastructure repair. To a great extent these primary public assets are decades or more past their useful life, or are currently being used far beyond their expected or engineered capacity. Unless remedial action is taken, things literally will start to fall apart. There is a problem, though, in moving forward in timely fashion with infrastructure improvement.

Just about everyone wants the convenience and comforts that modern infrastructure provides, but a considerable segment of the population wants the service without paying its share of the bill. That's fiscal and political tunnel vision.

Infrastructure must be maintained and updated to meet current and future needs. If that investment, costly as it might be, is not made, the nation's continued economic growth, productivity, competitiveness and, indeed, our very quality of life will be negatively affected.