Recent events – from blistering heat to drought to torrential rains and more – highlight the importance of assessing our infrastructure to maintain these systems now and to invest for the future.
By Christine Coolick, SWE Contributor
It’s all around us, supporting nearly every aspect of our lives. Our drinking water systems, roads, rails, airports, electrical lines, inland waterways, dams, and levees. Our networks of health care, communications, internet access, and cybersecurity. Yet, there’s a huge infrastructure gap that stretches the world over. In many developing countries, basic infrastructure is lacking or not provided in tandem with large urbanization pushes. In developed countries, infrastructure systems are aging and in dire need of upgrades or transitions to address issues of equality, aging populations, and, importantly, changing climate.
Indeed, more and more, infrastructure systems are being burdened and overwhelmed due to severe weather events. Roads are buckling and power cables are melting under the intense heat that hit the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and Canada. Torrential rain in Detroit this summer led to massive flooding that submerged hundreds of vehicles on freeways, backed up sewers across the city, and closed shipment yards. Freezing temperatures and severe storms in Texas this past winter overwhelmed the power grid, causing multiple-day blackouts across the state. As our world continues to warm, these extreme weather events will only continue in frequency, intensity, and impact — spotlighting the need for more resilient infrastructure solutions.
“Largely where they went up is because we did see increased investment. We’ve talked about solutions to improve the grades for as long as we’ve been doing the report cards. One of those top-line continuous solutions is investment, and the good news is, where we’ve seen investment, the grades are starting to pick up.”
– Kristina Swallow, P.E., past president, American Society of Civil Engineers
The grades are in
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issues a report card for America’s current state of infrastructure, providing an overall GPA as well as grades for each category. ASCE graded America’s infrastructure overall as a C- in 2021 — the first time in 20 years the country has earned higher than a D average.
A grade of C means “mediocre, requires attention,” and a D stands for “poor, at risk” — meaning the system is mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service lives. In the 2021 report card, 11 out of 17 categories earned a D.
Five categories did see their grades improve: aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports.
“Largely where they went up is because we did see increased investment,” said Kristina Swallow, P.E., a civil engineer and past president of ASCE. “We’ve talked about solutions to improve the grades for as long as we’ve been doing the report cards. One of those top-line continuous solutions is investment, and the good news is, where we’ve seen investment, the grades are starting to pick up.”
State and local governments have helped make some progress: 37 states have raised their gas tax to fund critical investments in transportation since 2010. And, in November 2020, 98% of local infrastructure ballot initiatives passed. Increased federal investments have helped ports, drinking water networks, and inland waterways.
Yet maintenance backlogs continue to be a main concern for all sectors.
ASCE’S 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
Drinking Water: C-
Hazardous Waste: D+
Inland Waterways: D+
Public Parks: D+
Solid Waste: C+
A widening chasm: chasing ever-increasing investment needs
ASCE also estimates the investment needed in each category to improve the sector to a grade of B. The long-term investment gap continues to grow, as the United States is currently paying only roughly half its infrastructure bill — and failing to close this gap brings serious economic consequences. Our aging electric grid and inadequate water distribution translate to higher costs for businesses to manufacture and distribute goods and provide services. These higher costs are then passed on to workers and families.
Surface transportation takes the cake in terms of greatest investment needs. ASCE estimates $2.8 trillion would need to be invested between 2020 and 2029 to bring the sector into good shape. Current estimates show, instead, that only $1.6 trillion will be invested, leaving a funding gap of $1.2 trillion. The drinking water/wastewater/stormwater sector has the next largest need: $1.05 trillion, with only $611 billion estimated to be invested, leaving another funding gap of $434 billion. All told, America’s infrastructure investment needs tally to $5.9 trillion, with actual funding estimated to come in at $3.3 trillion — leaving a total funding gap of $2.6 trillion.
Clocking in just a hair above failing, the nation’s public transit system earned the lowest grade on the report card: a D-. Currently, 45% of Americans have no access to transit, and much of the existing system is aging. There is a $176 billion transit backlog — which is expected to grow to more than $270 billion through 2029.
Individual sector issues are challenging enough, but the way they intertwine means specific issues can cause a huge ripple across them all.
“It’s all connected,” said Swallow. “We need to start thinking about them all as a large system.”
Inland waterways, for instance, is currently graded a D+, yet it’s not a sector that gets a lot of attention. But Swallow paints a picture of what could happen if we continue to ignore its needs. If part of our inland waterway system fails, that means that goods don’t get to market.
“And a failure of two or three along that system means manufacturers will start to debate how they ship their goods,” said Swallow. “And perhaps instead of shipping them on inland waterways, they’ll pivot and ship them on roadways.”
This could lead to a higher volume of vehicles on the road, which would cause more damage to our roadway system, as well as more use in general, which will lead to a need for more capacity, and so on.
There’s also the issue of not even knowing all the challenges we might be facing across our infrastructure system. For some sectors, such as school facilities, levees, and stormwater systems, there is a lack of data about their current condition.
The National Levee Database contains nearly 30,000 miles of levees, but estimates up to 10,000 more miles of levees are uncatalogued — and their conditions are therefore unknown.
School facilities are the second largest sector of public infrastructure spending, yet earn a D+ from ASCE. And there is no comprehensive national database on K-12 public school infrastructure. Available data indicate more than half of all public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems, more than a third have portable buildings due to capacity constraints, and one in five school-aged children lacked the high-speed internet connection needed to access lessons and school materials when the pandemic forced their classrooms to go virtual.
This report card is the first one to include the stormwater category, and that’s largely been because there haven’t been enough data to make an assessment. But Swallow says as a country we can’t continue to turn a blind eye to it.
“It’s a critical part of our infrastructure, and if data is the critical issue, then let’s start talking about the need to get this data,” said Swallow.
The maintained road forward
To close the $2.6 trillion 10-year investment gap, ASCE recommends increasing investments from all government levels and the private sector from 2.5% to 3.5% of the U.S. gross domestic product by 2025.
“The fact is that the lack of investment in infrastructure is costing Americans every day,” said Swallow. “We can increase the investment, and it will have an economic positive impact on individuals in our community if we were to do so.”
Unchecked, ASCE estimates that by 2039, America’s overdue infrastructure bill will cost the average American household $3,300 a year.
The current administration’s focus on infrastructure is a long time coming, and while it points to a hopeful opportunity, it also draws attention to one of the biggest difficulties the United States faces: arriving at cross-party buy-in to a strategy for infrastructure development.
“If you’re developing infrastructure, it needs to extend beyond the four- or five-year term of a president or governor or mayor. You need to develop a long-term strategy, as infrastructure generally provides for at least 50 years.”
– Alice Charles, project lead, World Economic Forum
“It’s great that the United States is getting bipartisan buy-in to the [infrastructure] budget,” said Alice Charles, a project lead with the World Economic Forum (WEF). “But the question is, will that transcend down to state- and city-level government? Because if you’re developing infrastructure, it needs to extend beyond the four- or five-year term of a president or governor or mayor. You need to develop a long-term strategy, as infrastructure generally provides for at least 50 years.”
That clear vision not only helps with a consistent path forward for infrastructure maintenance and build, but also provides certainty for investors.
“We constantly hear from investors, ‘We have lots of money, but there’s a lack of bankable projects,’” said Charles. “What that means is they don’t have infrastructure projects they can finance that have the right risk profile and are structured in the right way that they can easily invest in.” And the U.S. lacks a comprehensive blueprint for investment at the federal, state, and local levels, Charles points out.
The U.S. tends to rely heavily on its government for financing infrastructure projects. But blended financing and private financing are mechanisms more frequently used elsewhere, Charles notes. Revenue-share models are another way to support infrastructure projects, but they’re underutilized in the U.S.
Across the globe
ASCE’s report card isn’t the only robust assessment of infrastructure. The World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Report assesses all countries by a variety of factors, with infrastructure serving as one of the four pillars of a country’s “enabling environment” framework.
It ranks Singapore’s infrastructure highest, with a score of 95.4 out of 100. Next is the Netherlands at 94.3, Hong Kong SAR at 94, Switzerland at 93.2, and Japan at 93.2. The U.S. is ranked 13th globally, with an overall score of 87.9.
The WEF relies on surveys of competitiveness councils to understand what the perspective is in relation to infrastructure, rather than assessing the current condition of each piece of infrastructure. While the ASCE report card is more qualitative, looking at the condition of infrastructure, the WEF’s survey looks at the perception in terms of competitiveness.
“Either way,” noted Charles, “the United States is neither best in class, nor worst in class.” The country’s main problem is retrofitting its infrastructure to meet equality and climate needs, as well as the needs of its aging population.
The countries that score highest on the WEF’s infrastructure scale are all smaller countries, they’ve embraced nontraditional methodologies, and have been willing to experiment.
In the Netherlands, the federal government developed a policy that stated that by 2023 a commercial building couldn’t be rented if it didn’t have a minimum building energy rating of a C. This resulted in banks quickly making money available for projects so that their portfolios transitioned well in advance of the requirement by 2023.
“It’s a great example of having national, regional, and local government all working together with private industry, civil society, and academia to develop a policy that was capable of implementation,” said Charles.
In Singapore, public housing has been embraced as the gold standard, so that 81% of the population lives in public housing. This provides the government a continuous revenue stream and helps keep their cities affordable. Singapore was also the first country to introduce road-congestion charges — a strategy that was copied by many countries not long after.
Beyond investment: smarter, more resilient solutions
The United States’ infrastructure challenges will require similar smart, nontraditional solutions, as well as additional investments, to find success.
ASCE highlights asset management as key to helping prioritize the distribution of limited funds for infrastructure maintenance. Additionally, the collection of data is critical. “If we don’t know what levees we have or where our stormwater systems are, it’s hard to determine if we’re investing where it’s most critical,” said Swallow.
Harnessing more technology can also enable smart, more-flexible solutions. For instance, more and more states’ departments of transportation are using data to manage speed limits in their heaviest traveled corridors. By introducing variable speed limits, they can best respond to such things as weather and traffic congestion to create a system that functions more effectively, resulting in fewer crashes, more throughput, and a more reliable transportation system overall.
Making sure investments made go as far as possible is also critical. Investing in resilient infrastructure pays dividends. “It’s a six-to-one return on investment when you invest in resiliency up front,” said Swallow, “and therefore have infrastructure that you don’t need to repair on the back end of a catastrophic failure.”
Beyond concrete: embracing nature-based solutions
Swallow notes that the challenges we currently face in infrastructure will require engineers to design differently than they have in the past. A major flooding event — something that’s become more common — can have a major impact on roadways as well as our drinking water.
“They all connect, so we need to figure out how to build in that resiliency. As we deliver new infrastructure, as we deliver updated infrastructure for existing facilities, making sure that we’re taking into account how to be more resilient than we were in the past, and perhaps just building completely differently.”
That’s because up until recently, infrastructure was designed for the past — quite literally — by looking back at historic data. A flood wall would be designed by looking at historic data of flood patterns over the area’s past 100 years.
“We need to think more strategically about where infrastructure is effective, what it can do, and what it cannot do. Infrastructure is not the magical answer to everything. It has drawbacks and costs, and some natural ecosystems have advantages that are not priced in.”
– Jenny Suckale, Ph.D., assistant professor of geophysics, Stanford University
“Pre-climate change, that’s a practice that makes sense,” said Jenny Suckale, Ph.D., assistant professor of geophysics at Stanford University who leads the Stanford Future Bay Initiative. That’s because it used to be true that historic data were indicative of current and future situations. “With climate change, that’s no longer true.”
Dr. Suckale points to the Anderson Dam in the Bay Area, which was built in 1950, and was developed using historic data. Today, the higher variability of precipitation in California due to climate changes means wetter years are more frequent — and the dam’s outflow valve can’t always keep up. This leads to the dam itself causing floods because it overspills with water that it can’t release fast enough.
Indeed, the response to climate change might not be more infrastructure. “In the last couple of decades, certainly in the flood risk management world, I think we’ve had an over-reliance on infrastructure,” said Dr. Suckale. “So now we’re at a place where some of that infrastructure is creating its own risks.”
Charles points to the Australian city of Melbourne’s alternative response to an increase in major flood instances. The city realized it was dealing at the same time with rising temperatures. After a concerted effort to plant more trees, they successfully increased their urban forestry within the city, which allowed for the increased absorption of water during heavy rainfall, leading to reduced flooding incidents. The added benefit of shade from the trees also reduced the overall heat, and helped increase the city’s biodiversity.
These instances of multipurpose solutions can help increase resilience to multiple climate stressors, rather than just one, which has been the more traditional approach to infrastructure.
“We need to think more strategically about where infrastructure is effective, what it can do, and what it cannot do,” said Dr. Suckale. “Infrastructure is not the magical answer to everything. It has drawbacks and costs, and some natural ecosystems have advantages that are not priced in.”
Currently, Dr. Suckale is working on multiple flood mitigation projects. She points to one where river flooding has led one community to investigate widening a bridge to lessen flooding, but she recognizes this solution simply pushes the flooding farther downstream to a different community. In another instance, a wealthy community is seeking to fund a wall to prevent flooding from rising sea levels.
“But what do the neighboring, less-affluent communities do?” Dr. Suckale asked. “We need to make sure that infrastructure is not a privilege of the rich.”
The proposed solution also focuses only on flooding from one source — rising sea levels — and doesn’t consider other factors, such as flooding from increased precipitation. That could be a huge potential problem because, as Dr. Suckale points out, “walls tend to keep water out as much as they keep it in.”
Dr. Suckale also focuses on community engagement when developing answers to climate change issues, working almost exclusively with historically disadvantaged or marginalized communities.
“It’s been an interesting experience to me to realize how deeply embedded certain inequities are in how we design infrastructure,” she said.
A prime example is quantifying risk. Typically, we assess the dollar amount of damage that can happen in the case of a fire or a flood. At first glance, it makes sense. But Dr. Suckale points out that the total dollar amount doesn’t accurately reflect what the damage means to a community or a household.
“If I have $10,000 of damage to a million-dollar mansion, that’s a different impact than if I talk about $10,000 damage to a $15,000 mobile home,” said Dr. Suckale. “In the first case, you’re looking at a small cost compared to the house price. In the latter, that’s the entire home destroyed.”
Dr. Suckale recommends we adjust our metrics to reflect not just dollar amounts, but the social risks as well — the impact on livelihoods and households. That could be just as critical in the next generation of infrastructure as developing smart, resilient, and multifunctional solutions.
World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2019:
The United States’ infrastructure score of 87.9 breaks down as:
Transportation Infrastructure: 79.6
- Road connectivity: 100
- Quality of road infrastructure: 74.5
- Railroad density: 41.3
- Efficiency of train services: 69.2
- Airport connectivity: 100
- Efficiency of air transport services: 79.6
- Liner shipping connectivity: 96.7
- Efficiency of seaport services: 75.9
Utility Infrastructure: 96.2
- Electricity access: 100
- Electricity supply quality: 98.6
- Exposure to unsafe drinking water: 100
- Reliability of water supply: 86.1