The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has over 150,000 members and representation in 177 countries. It is the United States’ oldest national engineering society, having been established in 1852. Its mandate for existing is simple: to advance the civil engineering profession for the welfare of humanity. In doing so, ASCE provides the voice for the built environment. However, there are issues to be addressed. ASCE aims to do just that and do it proactively.
“When you don’t invest in infrastructure, you are going to pay sooner or later” – Mike Parker, U.S. infrastructure advisory leader, Ernst & Young Infrastructure Advisors, LLC.
Infrastructure is not given much thought as one goes about the business of daily life, but it is ever-present.
Although roads, bridges, ports, airports and electrical grids may appear to be separate classifications, all are systems of infrastructure that share a complex interdependency. It is a dynamic, challenging relationship, in which civil engineers play a pivotal role in planning, building and maintaining essential national assets.
This critical and rewarding role is one that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) does not take lightly, nor should it. As an investment, infrastructure is key to the social, environmental and economic prosperity of the United States. There is so much at stake.
That is why ASCE believes that infrastructure must be taken seriously and receive funding priority or the country will face the consequences of inaction. Tom Smith, ASCE’s executive director, notes that the infrastructure issue, “is something we’ve been evaluating for many years,” particularly since the release of its first national Report Card for America’s Infrastructure in 1998.
Tom maintains that, at the public policy level, the United States has failed to prioritize its infrastructure systems when budgets are created, even though so much is dependent on these systems. “Our productivity and our quality of life are dependent on it.”
While the lifespan of a particular infrastructure system will vary depending on its design and construction, it is important to recognize that the issue really becomes one in which, “we’re failing to maintain the infrastructure so that replacement becomes necessitated as opposed to just repair.”
He cites a significant water main break of a sixty-year-old pipe in Washington, D.C. in 2014. Water had escaped into the city’s metro system causing a shutdown of two main lines, subsequently resulting in passengers having to use surface transportation, causing gridlock on city streets. Moreover, this was not an isolated event. The United States has over 240,000 water main breaks a year “that cause major problems in the transportation network. It can cause problems in the energy network as well, as a water main break can cause outages in underground power lines. So [infrastructure] is a connective system,” Tom affirms.
There are sixteen categories of infrastructure systems, each of which is assessed and given a grade on the infrastructure report card by an advisory council of ASCE. These grades are assigned every four years, the last being in 2013. Since 1998, the grade has remained in the D range with an increase to D+ in 2013. This can be attributed to underinvestment and maintenance delays in most categories. As for 2017’s report card, Tom says, “I’d be very surprised if we saw any significant improvement.”
There are several infrastructure projects currently underway in the United States. One is the twin-span Tappan Zee Bridge replacement which crosses the Hudson River in New York State and was originally built in 1955. This replacement will cost close to four billion dollars with a completion date of 2018. Another is the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement in Seattle, Washington, originally constructed in 1953 and also expected to cost over four billion dollars and to be open in 2019.
“You have to look at each of these categories and look at what the future need is and the operation and maintenance that we have. Unfortunately, we’re still not investing anywhere near the level that we need to operate and maintain our infrastructure.”
He indicates that there is an estimated infrastructure investment need of $3.6 trillion by 2020, with a current gap of $1.6 trillion. He suggests that the largest most significant gap remains in transportation.
The FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) was approved in 2015 and was the first federal law in over a decade that provides long-term funding for the planning and investment of surface transportation infrastructure. It has authorized $305 billion for years 2016 to 2020.
The FAST Act, “is certainly helpful and a step in the right direction, but it was not enough and lacked a long-term, sustainable funding source,” says Tom. “With transportation, we have this major gap and need in funding. We need to invest an additional one trillion dollars throughout the transportation network that includes roads, bridges, transit and commuter rail. It’s a really significant investment gap that we have.”
ASCE believes that there are three key solutions that will raise the grade for American infrastructure: a vision at the national level through strong leadership; a determined effort to develop funding plans for the maintaining and enrichment of all infrastructure; and the promotion of sustainability and resilience.
“We added sustainability to our code of ethics in 1996,” explains Tom. “Sustainability and resilience are two areas that we believe are key solutions to this issue.” ASCE uses a sustainability rating tool that it helped create via the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure which focuses on utilizing infrastructure effectively and designing in a way that is sustainable. “It’s not just about maintaining infrastructure that’s forty or fifty years old. That’s also important. But a lot of times, it’s finding new solutions using infrastructure innovatively and being innovative with new designs and techniques.”
He does suggest that, like many things in life, issues are addressed only when problems occur, and sometimes that is too late. The same could be said of infrastructure. The United States, he believes is not proactive enough, and, “we fail many times to invest in ‘the ounce of prevention’ that would prevent some of the problems that we have.” ASCE has over 150,000 members and “we try to mobilize them to speak out on this issue.”
ASCE has also worked with economists to indicate the costs of failing to invest in infrastructure. “We put it in simple terms that anyone in the public can understand. It costs a family $3,400 a year when we fail to invest in our infrastructure.”
“I think we have been effective in changing the conversation,” he notes, referring to President Obama and legislators frequently citing ASCE’s Report Card. Civil engineers approach Capitol Hill often to advocate for change. Other organizations, including the American Trucking Association and the Chamber of Congress, are in favor of a gas tax to increase funding. “We have coalitions working on these things. But it’s an uphill battle because of the reluctance to increase taxes.”
There are some states that have increased gas taxes but, “We have been unsuccessful in getting an increase in the federal gas tax which has remained at 18.4 cents since 1993. So we’re still trying to pay for 2016 infrastructure with 1993 dollars. And that doesn’t work.”
Tom says that U.S. infrastructure is definitely lagging and is not even in the world’s top ten according to the World Economic Forum. And this leads to reduced global economic competitiveness. What is needed is a vision for infrastructure, a prioritization at the very highest level and this “really is a challenge. It does require true leadership at the federal, state and local levels … We’re doing some things right, but we have a long way to go.”
In the future, solutions such as a vehicle tax on the number of miles traveled may become a reality. ASCE also looks at other answers such as public-private partnerships and tolls. “We just recognize, ultimately, that the people who use infrastructure have to pay for it. One way or another, we have to invest in and pay for our infrastructure. We have to recognize that.”
Of course the issue of climate change and its impact on infrastructure systems is something that ASCE had examined closely before it adopted a greenhouse gas policy. “We focus on mitigation and adaptation when it comes to climate change,” says Tom. “We have to design differently looking forward.”
“Civil engineers have been dealing with challenges for thousands of years. We will continue to do so and adapt, change and innovate in a sustainable, resilient way.”