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From the Editor: Infrastructure Report Card Again Near Failing

Mark Scacco on April 19, 2017 - in Articles, Column

Like for many students across the country, my kids’ school semester ended earlier this year. They each worked hard, doing their homework, studying for quizzes and tests, and preparing for finals. Also, like most kids, they would rather be spending their time doing almost anything else instead of school work.

All You Have to Fear Is …

Setting aside attendance mandates from parents and state authorities, why do most kids go to school and try to get good grades? Before they’re mature enough to be motivated by the personal long-term benefits of a good education and the potential for improved opportunities if they get good grades, they’re motivated by something else: fear. If they don’t get good grades, they fear disappointing their parents, not moving on to the next grade with their peers, embarrassment, etc.

Also earlier this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its quadrennial “Infrastructure Report Card.” The ASCE has issued this comprehensive assessment of America’s infrastructure since 1998, and it examines the country’s infrastructure in 16 different categories. These grades then are combined to determine an overall “GPA.” Not once in the last 20 years has the grade been above a D+, which is the current grade for 2017. If I was America, this is not a report card I would want to show to my parents.

Long History of Neglect

For more than 20 years, our nation has neglected its infrastructure maintenance and construction needs such that it now costs every American family $3,400 per year. According to the report, the 10-year investment needed to improve U.S. infrastructure is $4.59 trillion. Numbers this large need perspective: that’s enough money to give every runner in the Boston Marathon $153 million or every single person in America $14,300. This is a staggering amount of money, which only increases the longer the neglect continues (the amount needed in 2001 over a comparable timeframe was $2.6 trillion).

What will it take to encourage us as a nation to put in the effort to improve our grade? Unfortunately, unlike school children, fear is not a sufficient motivator. The scary list of loss of life and property since the first report card is long and sad:

2000: Martin County levee failure and coal slurry spill. The water supply for more than 27,000 residents was contaminated; the spill was 30 times greater than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

2003: Northeast blackout. An estimated 55 million people were without power, some for more than a week.

2007: Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse. Thirteen people were killed and 145 were injured.

2015: Flint, Mich., water contamination. Nearly 100,000 people were impacted by lead-tainted drinking water, as high as 13,200 ppb. Water contaminated with 5,000 ppb of lead is classified by the EPA as hazardous waste.

Aside from these tragic figures, crumbling infrastructure also has a huge negative impact on the U.S. economy. From 2007-2016, American productivity, measured in output per hour, has risen only 1.3 percent, compared to more than 2.6 percent from 1947-1973 (source: PBS NewsHour, Dec. 12, 2016). In his new book, American Amnesia, author Jacob Hacker states that Americans have forgotten the positive impacts government infrastructure investment has on our prosperity. Estimates are that the interstate highway system accounted for one-third of productivity growth in the U.S. economy in the the 1950s and 25 percent of growth in the 1960s.

Three Key Categories

The ASCE report lists solutions to our infrastructure problems in three key categories: Investment; Leadership and Planning; and Preparation for the Future. Taken together, these categories require strong leadership from our elected officials and industry partners to make the investments today, utilizing new approaches, technology and materials to ensure a modern and resilient American infrastructure.

In the presidential election last year, both candidates pledged to invest in rebuilding America. As recently as early March 2017, President Trump tasked his staff with developing a plan to invest $1 trillion dollars in American infrastructure. Possible projects include building, expanding or repairing roads, ports, rail, bridges and broadband Internet access. Finding funding for these projects, however, is a challenge and will likely include a combination of public and private money.

Stanley Kubrick once said, “I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.”

The same is true for our infrastructure. It’s in all our best interest to make sure we commit to rebuilding the backbone of this country before we’re left behind by our peers worldwide.

About Mark Scacco

Mark Scacco, P.E., is the editor in residence for Informed Infrastructure magazine, founder and president of Engineered Efficiency Inc., and since 2001 has been an AEC industry consultant working with firms to grow their business through efficient use of technology. Visit www.eng-eff.com to learn more, or reach him via email at mark.scacco@eng-eff.com.

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