Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Failing Grade for the Nation's Infrastructure

Today, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report card on the nation's infrastructure. And it failed, miserably, with a D.

As a civil engineer myself, I’ve seen government on all levels fail to keep up with the needs to maintain infrastructure including roads and bridges, parks, municipal buildings, water and wastewater, and transit.

Well, there’s the report card on the right.

What’s most inexcusable is the situation with roads and bridges, where there is a dedicated user fee (the gas tax) on both the federal and state levels.

How did we get here? Is it underfunding? Is it incompetence in the agencies that manage infrastructure? Or is it the way infrastructure is owned, funded and managed in our nation?

Well, it’s a little of all of the above. Generally, the agencies blame the funding; the politicians blame the agencies. But, in the end, our national infrastructure ownership and management system is dysfunctional.

Part of the problem can be blamed on the complex nature of infrastructure ownership and management. If we listen to all the talk about the stimulus finding for infrastructure, from politicians, the media, the public, pundits, and the like, you might think it was all government-owned and funded, right?


Much of it is privately owned and operated. See the table below for some of the complexities of ownership, funding, maintenance and operation of our public infrastructure:

Take electrical power from generation to transmission lines to the distribution wires that feed your home and businesses. Almost all of the nation’s power system is privately owned. There are exceptions, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and some local municipal power companies, but chances are those power lines are owned by a private utility.

We frequently hear of the failure of the power system (e.g., lines down in storms), but it’s not just something that the federal government can throw money at. Most of it is privately owned and funded, with the government’s role as regulator. And with the levels of regulation, constructing a new power plant or transmission lines is typically at least a 10-year long project!

In the end, there are no simple answers. I will address some of these issues in future blogs.