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America's Public Infrastructure: A National Report Card


Written by guest contributor Roger L. Kemp, Ph.D., ICMA-CM

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. 

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The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)—the only professional membership organization in the nation that grades our nation’s public infrastructure—recognizes the major categories of infrastructure: aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees,  ports, parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit, and wastewater. ASCE's 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure assesses the same categories as it did in its 1988 survey, and the comparisons are highlighted below in alphabetical order:

  • Aviation – Received a grade of B- in 1988, and a grade of D in 2013.
  • Bridges – Received a grade of C+ in 1988, and a grade of C+ in 2013.
  • Dams – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D in 2013.
  • Drinking Water – Received a grade of B- in 1988, and a grade of D in 2013.
  • Energy – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D+ in 2013.
  • Hazardous Waste – This category receives a grade of D in 1988 and D in 2013.
  • Inland Waterways – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D- in 2013.
  • Levees - While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of D- in 2013.
  • Parks and Recreation – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of C- in 2013.
  • Ports – While not graded in 1988, they received a grade of C in 2013.
  • Rail – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of C+ in 2013.
  • Roads – Received a grade of C+ in 1988, and a grade of D in 2013.
  • Schools – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D in 2013.
  • Solid Waste – Received a grade of C- in 1988, and a grade of B- in 2013.  This is the only infrastructure category to increase its grade since the original “graded” evaluation was done some 25 years ago.
  • Transit – Received a grade of C- in 1988, and a grade of D in 2013.
  • Wastewater – Received a grade of C in 1988, and a grade of D in 2013.

The average public infrastructure grade for our nation was a C- in 1988 and a D+ in 2013. 

In short, U.S. roads, bridges, sewers, and dams, are crumbling and need a $2.2 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 percent of this amount. As a result, aging wastewater systems are discharging billions of gallons of untreated sewage into surface waters each year, according to 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 percent in 2001. As of 2003, 27 percent of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient or obsolete, a slight improvement from the 28.5 percent in 2000. It is alarming to note, but since 1998 the number of unsafe dams in the country rose by 33 percent to more than 3,500.

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. Little agreement exists, however, on a consensus of 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 financial solution required to solve this national problem.

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Dr. Roger L. Kemp, MPA, MBA, PhD., ICMA-CM, has been a career city manager in CA, CT, and NJ.  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 Distinguished Adjunct Professor, Executive MPA Program, Golden Gate University, and a Professional in Residence, Department of Public Management, School of Public Service, University of New Haven. Roger can be reached via email at rlkbsr@snet.net.

Comments

Marty Rowland

Roger - good article. Here's an opportunity for your readers to get involved in designing a guide for infrastructure management. See https://www.astm.org.. . I'm leading the effort to establish a Guide on how cities and States should manage infrastructure spending and upkeep. I could be used by the federal government to qualify lower levels of government for infrastructure grants. Contact ASTM at Tel: +1.610.832.9500
Fax: +1.610.832.9555
service@astm.org

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