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Columnists / Water Quality / Kelly Faloon: Editorial Opinion

U.S. infrastructure grade rises to D+

Piping and plumbing figure into needed improvements.

April 19, 2013

Many students would be happy getting their report cards every four years. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t if they received the across-the-board poor grades given to America’s infrastructure.

Last month, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)sent home its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which it does every four years. The cumulative grade point average, across 16 infrastructure categories, fell below a gentleman’s C to a D+.

The GPA has languished in the D range since 1998 because we haven’t maintained or invested enough money in these systems. If you thought your tax dollars were being wasted on federal stimulus projects, you should know that the 2013 grade actually inched up from a D four years ago.

ASCE credits short-term boosts in federal funding with improvements in several categories. In fact, none of the categories experienced a lower grade than it did in 2009. Drinking water and wastewater are among the categories that saw incremental improvements in the last four years. Other resources that resulted in higher grades include more private funds for railroads (C- to C+) and more tax dollars from cities and states for bridges (C to C+).

Here are the categories that most closely align with the piping and plumbing industry:

  • Drinking water: Despite an estimated 240,000 water main breaks annually, the grade in this category actually went up to a D from D- in 2009. With many miles of pipe more than 100 years old, the cost to replace them all could exceed $1 trillion in the decades ahead, according to the American Water Works Association.
    Ironically, the urgency to replace that pipe would be greater if the quality of U.S. drinking water were not as high as it is. In large part thanks to the plumbing industry, outbreaks of disease linked to drinking water are rare.
  • Wastewater: The grade in this category also improved to a D from a D- in 2009. Pipe represents the largest capital need, making up $223.5 billion of the $298 billion needed for the nation’s wastewater and stormwater systems over the next 20 years. Fixing and expanding pipe will address sanitary sewer overflows, combined sewer overflows and other pipe-related issues. Capital needs for treatment plants comprise 15% to 20% of total needs, but the percentage probably will increase due to new regulatory requirements.
    Stormwater needs are relatively small compared with sanitary pipe and treatment plants. Since 2007, the federal government has required cities to invest more than $15 billion in new pipe, plants and equipment to eliminate combined sewer overflows.
  • Schools: Another D appears in this category, the same grade as in 2009. We need to invest at least $270 billion to modernize and maintain our schools. Public school enrollment is projected to gradually increase through 2019, yet state and local school construction funding continues to decline. National spending on school construction fell last year to $10 billion, which is half the level spent before the recession. The condition of school buildings continues to worry communities because poor facilities have been shown to affect student performance.
  • Energy: The grade for energy remains a D+, where it was four years ago. The availability of energy in the form of electricity, natural gas and oil will become a greater challenge after 2020 as the population increases. Many of the country’s 150,000 miles of crude oil and product pipelines and 1.5 million miles of natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines are located underground and cross multiple states.

Since 2008, a series of oil and gas pipeline failures have led to deaths, injuries, property damage and environmental incidents. Such failures have demonstrated a need for greater pipeline management and maintenance programs. New federal safety requirements were enacted in 2011 to address the increased number of incidents due to aging infrastructure and lack of maintenance.

The coal, oil and gas industry faces other infrastructure issues related to delivering these resources efficiently. The spike in shale gas recovery around the country has not been accompanied by expansion of the transportation systems needed to carry the gas and associated liquids to the market.

ASCE says its Report Card shows that we can improve the nation’s infrastructure when we invest in it. That, of course, is easier said than done in this era of sequestration and federal budget deficits.

Nevertheless, you can make a direct tie between a country’s infrastructure and economic health. The still-deplorable grades in ASCE’s Report Card show how much work remains to be done. If you look on the bright side, you’ll see the business opportunities that could be waiting for you if the country gives our infrastructure the priority it deserves.


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