Roads, wires, pipes rotting, experts say

Friday, September 05, 2003

Associated Press
(Appeared in Star-Ledger)

WASHINGTON -- America's infrastructure is full of cracks, leaks and holes and is getting worse, according to an analysis by civil engineers that concludes the nation's transportation, water and energy systems have shown little improvement since they were given an overall grade of D-plus in 2001.

A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers released yesterday assessed trends over the last two years in the condition of 12 categories of infrastructure, including roadways, bridges, drinking water and energy.

The report blamed the deteriorating infrastructure on a weak economy, limited federal programs, population growth and the threat of terrorism, which diverted money to security.

"Americans' concerns about security threats are real, but so are the threats posed by crumbling infrastructure," Thomas Jackson, ASCE president, said in a statement. "It doesn't matter if the dam fails because cracks have never been repaired or if it fails at the hands of a terrorist. The towns below the dam will still be devastated."

There was no progress for schools, which received the worst grade -- D-minus -- from the engineers in 2001. The report said three out of four school buildings are inadequate. They estimate it will cost more than $127 billion to build new classrooms and modernize outdated schools.

Energy transmission earned a D-plus two years ago, and the engineers said the trend is getting worse. Investment in transmission fell by $115 million annually, to $2 billion a year in 2000 from $5 billion in 1975. Actual capacity increased by only 7,000 megawatts a year, 30 percent less than needed to keep up with power demand.

Roads didn't fare much better. "The nation is failing to even maintain the substandard conditions we currently have," the report said, adding that the average rush hour grew by more than 18 minutes between 1997 and 2000.

The engineers' report also saw no improvement on bridges, noting that 27.5 percent of U.S. bridges were structurally deficient or obsolete in 2000.

Transportation systems showed signs of decline, despite increased spending over the past six years. "Efforts to maintain the systems are outpaced by growth in ridership," the report said.

Dwayne Kalynchuk, president of the American Public Works Association, said investing in the nation's infrastructure needs to be more of a priority.

"We're all certainly aware of issues, of emergencies, and investing in emergencies immediately," Kalynchuk said. "But I think here we have an emergency that is going to catch up to us in the next few years if we don't deal with it today."

The Bush administration in May proposed spending $247 billion on roads, bridges and mass transit, 13 percent more than the previous six-year plan.

Rep. Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has proposed a $375 billion spending plan, to be paid for by indexing the gasoline tax to inflation. Young (R-Alaska) said in a statement that the report reinforced his serious concerns about the state of the U.S. infrastructure.

"If we don't provide adequate investment in transportation and water infrastructure, we will dearly regret it in the long run," Young said.