America's infrastructure earns D+ on national report card

Water infrastructure in the United States continues to be ranked in poor condition by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Water infrastructure in the United States continues to be ranked in poor condition by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). However, it has improved over the past few years and is one of the bright spots in the ASCE’s 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s infrastructure across 16 sectors.

Updated once every four years, this year’s Report Card found that America’s cumulative GPA for infrastructure rose slightly to a D+ from a D in 2009. The Report Card estimates total investment needs at $3.6 trillion by 2020 across all 16 sectors, leaving a funding shortfall of $1.6 trillion based on current funding levels.

The grades in 2013 range from a high of B- for solid waste infrastructure to a low of D- for inland waterways and levees. Encouraging trends were found in sectors where focused investments were made. Six sectors (drinking water, wastewater, solid waste, roads, bridges, and rail) each experienced incremental improvements since the last assessment. America’s rail sector saw the largest improvement, moving from a C- to a C+.

Both drinking water and wastewater infrastructure saw their grades rise from D- in the 2009 report to D this time around.

It is widely known that a large portion of the nation’s drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Some water systems date back to the Civil War era, but water infrastructure components only have a useful life between 15 and 95 years. It is estimated that the most urgent investments to restore water infrastructure could be spread over 25 years at a cumulative cost of approximately $1 trillion.

Wastewater infrastructure faces the same hurdles. There are between 700,000 and 800,000 miles of public sewer lines in the U.S., many of them installed right after World War II. Investments in these pipes accounts for up to 85% of dollars spent in the sector. Modern plumbing is what all Americans are accustomed to, however few know that the current system is so aged and inadequate that it discharges an estimated 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage each year.

Other key sectors and their grades:

  • Energy’s grade remained the same at a D+. The U.S. relies on an aging electrical grid and pipeline distribution system, some of which originated in the 1880s. While demand for electricity has remained level, the availability of energy will become a greater challenge after 2020 as the population increases.
  • Hazardous Waste systems’ grade remained unchanged at a D. The undeniable success in the cleanup of the nation’s hazardous waste is diminished by a severe budgetary shortfall for Superfund and brownfield site cleanups.
  • Solid Waste systems earned the highest grade in 2013 of a B-. In 2010, Americans recycled 85 million tons of the 250 million tons of trash generated.

For more information, visit ASCE’s website, www.asce.org, to see specific policy recommendations to improve U.S. infrastructure.

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