|The good news… for the first time in 20 years, America’s infrastructure has risen out of the “D” range, scoring an overall “C-” in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) quadrennial report card. That’s an improvement from a “D+” given in 2017 but the ASCE stresses that there is still an enormous amount of work to do, which could be made more challenging by the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on infrastructure revenue streams.
Grades for five out of 17 categories that ASCE grades went up – aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports. Only the bridges category went down. Overall, 11 categories received grades in the D range, which ASCE says is a clear sign that America’s overdue infrastructure bill is a log way from being paid off.
As part of its grading system, the ASCE estimates the investment needed to maintain a state of good repair across different categories. The most recent analysis reveals that while incremental progress has been made in some of the infrastructure categories, the long-term investment gap – or the “overdue bill – continues to grow. ASCE says the country is only paying about half its infrastructure bill, with the total investment gap climbing from $2.1 trillion to nearly $2.59 trillion.
Below are more details about the current state of different infrastructure categories. I only included the broadest and most relevant categories to agriculture for the sake of brevity. The full 172-page report is HERE.
Aviation – D+: Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, ASCE says the nation’s airports were facing growing capacity challenges. Over a two-year period, passenger travel steadily increased from 964.7 million to 1.2 billion per year, yet flight service only increased from 9.7 to 10.2 million flights per year — contributing in part to a total of nearly 96 million delay minutes for airline passengers in 2019. Under pre-COVID-19 projections, our aviation system was set to have a 10-year, $111 billion funding shortfall, and that gap has likely grown significantly due to the pandemic. However, funding from Congress has risen from $11 billion annually to approximately $15 billion from 2017 to 2020, which is driving some early results.
|Bridges – C: ASCE says that 42% of the country’s more than 617,000 bridges are more than 50 years old, and 7.5% of them are considered structurally deficient, meaning they are in “poor” condition. ASCE estimates around 178 million trips are taken across structurally deficient bridges every day. The average age of U.S. bridges has now increased to 44 years, but the number rated “poor” has been declining. However, there is still a bridge repair backlog of some $125 billion. At the current rate of investment, it will take until 2071 to make all of the repairs that are currently necessary, and the additional deterioration over the next 50 years will become overwhelming. ASCE estimates bridge rehabilitation spending needs to be increased from $14.4 billion annually to $22.7 billion annually, or nearly 60%, in order to improve conditions.
|Dams – D: There are over 91,000 dams in the country that serve various functions. They are all classified by “hazard potential,” which is a measure of the estimated damage that could result if a failure did occur. A dam classified as “high hazard” means that its failure would likely result in direct loss of human life and extensive property damage. The number of high-hazard-potential dams has more than doubled in the last 20 years. The overall percentage protected by an Emergency Action Plan has increased as well, climbing to over 80% as of 2018, compared to only 5% in 2015. However, due to a lack of investment, its estimated that the number of deficient high-hazard-potential dams now exceeds 2,300.
|Drinking Water – C-: It is somewhat surprising that water scores a passing (barely) grade here when you consider this fact – a water main breaks every two minutes in this country, resulting in an estimated loss of around 6 billion gallons, or enough to fill 9,000 swimming pools. Our nation’s aging and underfunded drinking water infrastructure system is made up of 2.2 million miles of underground pipes, with utilities planning to replace about 12,000 miles in 2020. In 2019, only about a third of all utilities had a robust asset management program in place to help prioritize their capital and operations/maintenance investments with limited dollars.
Energy – C-: In our increasingly digital, connected world, Americans rely on uninterrupted electricity more than ever. Over the last four years, ASCE says investments in transmission, distribution and reliability-focused pipelines have increased while outages have decreased slightly. y. Annual spending on high voltage transmission lines grew from $15.6 billion in 2012 to $21.9 billion in 2017, while annual spending on distribution systems — the “last mile” of the electricity network — grew 54% over the past two decades. Weather, however, remains an increasing threat. Among 638 transmission outage events reported from 2014 to 2018, severe weather was cited as the predominant cause. Additionally, distribution infrastructure struggles with reliability, with 92% of all outages occurring along these segments.
Inland Waterways – D+: The Mississippi River and its tributaries, as well as the Columbia, Sacramento, and San Joaquin Rivers on the West Coast make up nearly 12,000 miles of navigable waterways — the U.S. freight network’s “water highway.” Inland waterway infrastructure includes locks and dams as well as navigation channels, all of which helps move agricultural exports. It also relieves strain on other transportation modes – one barge can move as many tons as 70 tractor trailers. Recent boosts in federal investment and an increase in user fees have begun to reverse decades of declining lock and dam conditions, with unscheduled lock closures reaching a 20-year low in 2017. However, the system still reports a $6.8 billion backlog in construction projects and ongoing lock closures — totaling 5,000 hours between 2015 and 2019 — harming industries that rely on them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates delays cost up to $739 per hour for an average tow, or $44 million per year.
Levees – D: Seventeen million people across the nation live or work behind a levee. Levees protect $2.3 trillion of property, 4,500 schools that collectively enroll over 2 million students, and a range of industries. The National Levee Database contains nearly 30,000 miles of levees across the U.S., and current estimates identify up to 10,000 additional miles of levees outside of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) portfolio whose location and condition are unknown due to complex and varying local ownership. The USACE estimates that $21 billion is needed to improve and maintain the moderate to high-risk levees in its portfolio, which represents only about 15% of the known levees in the U.S. As more extreme weather events result in increased flooding, such as the $20 billion in damages caused by flooding in the Midwest during the spring of 2019, it is now more important than ever to have a complete inventory of the nation’s levees and to equip communities with resources to mitigate flood risk and make necessary repairs.
Ports – B-: The nation’s more than 300 coastal and inland ports are significant drivers of the U.S. economy, supporting 30.8 million jobs in 2018 and 26% of the total GDP. Ports and port tenants plan to spend $163 billion between 2021 and 2025, up by over $8 billion the last four years. Investments are focused on capacity and efficiency enhancements as maximum vessel size has doubled over the last 15 years, and tonnage at the top 25 ports grew by 4.4% from 2015 to 2019. Federal funding has increased through multimodal competitive grant programs. However, there is a funding gap of $15.5 billion for waterside infrastructure such as dredging over the next 10 years, with additional billions needed for landside infrastructure. Smaller and inland ports are especially challenged to maintain their infrastructure and have difficulty competing for federal grants. Meanwhile, a port’s success is reliant on the infrastructure outside of its gates, which is often congested or in poor condition. For example, just 9% of intermodal connector pavement — the portions of roadway that connect a port to other modes — are in good or very good condition.
Rail – B: Our nation’s rail network is divided into two categories: freight rail and passenger rail. Approximately 140,000 rail miles are operated by freight’s Class I, II, and III railroads. Amtrak operates over a 21,400-mile network, 70% of which is owned by other railroads, also known as host track. Despite freight and passenger rail being part of an integrated system, there remain stark differences in the challenges faced by the two rail categories. While freight maintains a strong network largely through direct shipper fees — investing on average over $260,000 per mile — passenger rail requires government investment and has been plagued by a lack of federal support, leading to a current state of good repair backlog at $45.2 billion. Along our nation’s busiest passenger rail corridor, the Northeast Corridor (NEC), infrastructure-related issues caused 328,000 train-delay minutes, or the equivalent of roughly 700 Northeast Regional train trips from Boston, Massachusetts, to Washington, D.C.
Roads – D: America’s roads are critical for moving an ever-increasing number of people and goods. However, these vital lifelines are frequently underfunded, and over 40% of the system is now in poor or mediocre condition. As the backlog of rehabilitation needs grows, motorists are forced to pay over $1,000 every year in wasted time and fuel. Additionally, while traffic fatalities have been on the decline, over 36,000 people are still dying on the nation’s roads every year, and the number of pedestrian fatalities is on the rise. Federal, state, and local governments will need to prioritize strategic investments dedicated to improving and preserving roadway conditions that increase public safety on the system we have in place, as well as plan for the roadways of the future, which will need to account for connected and autonomous vehicles.