“For the first time in 20 years, our infrastructure is out of the D range.” So proclaimed the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which released its 2021 Report Card for American Infrastructure March 3. This year, the overall grade for the nation’s infrastructure was a C-, up from a D+ four years ago. All the categories either stayed the same or advanced slightly. The new category of stormwater infrastructure, added this year, received a D.
While waterways improved slightly to a D+, ports received a B-, one of the best grades of any category.
The ASCE releases such report cards every four years. They drive discussion of the nation’s infrastructure needs both in Congress and in the media.
“Over the past four years, the U.S. made incremental gains in some categories … [D]ue to increased investment, grades improved in aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways and ports. One infrastructure category—bridges—saw a decrease in grade in part because of the number of bridges that slipped to ‘fair condition from ‘good.’”
In a press release, the ASCE cautioned, “While there has been incremental progress in some areas, U.S. infrastructure gets a D range grade in 11 of 17 areas because the U.S. has failed to make investments just to keep up our roads, transit systems and more. The COVID-19 pandemic only adds to the challenge because states are slashing infrastructure funding.”
In a video presentation announcing the report card, among the 17 categories, Kristina Swallow, chair of the ASCE committee that put together the report and director of transportation for the state of Nevada, noted that the ASCE has been releasing the report card since the 1980s, and the results have always been “less than spectacular.” The committee uses a rigorous process that looks at condition, funding, resilience and future need.
Report Notes Olmsted Benefits
The nation’s inland waterways were given a slight improvement, but still only rated a D+. The report’s executive summary noted, “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. While this is encouraging, 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 the industries that rely on the waterways to get their goods to market.”
The waterways section of the report card praised recent increases in funding for lock and dam projects. “These additional appropriations by Congress help[ed] expedite the modernization of the nation’s locks and dams, improve efficiency along the system and realize economic benefits earlier. For example, Olmsted [Lock and Dam] began contributing $640 million annually in economic benefits as soon as it was finished. In general, projects along the inland waterways system yield a substantial return on investment. For every $1 of investment in infrastructure, between $2 and $3 is generated in economic activity around the U.S. over time.”
The report includes a chart showing steadily increasing funding for the Corps of Engineers for lock and dam maintenance since 2014. But it also notes, “[T]he [Corps] lacks a definition of deferred maintenance, and as a result there are different estimates of how much deferred maintenance exists on the system. The USACE backlog of authorized projects that are waiting for appropriations funding is $6.8 billion. The agency reports a navigation backlog of $2.7 billion annually in unmet maintenance work activities.”
To read the full waterways section of the report card, visit https://infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Inland-Waterways-2021.pdf.
The ports category received a B-, one of the highest grades of any category. The full report said, “In general, ports are expanding and adding capacity across the country. BTS reports the total tonnage handled at the top 25 ports in the country grew by 4.4 percent from 2015 to 2019. This growth is reflective of an industry that is investing in its capacity and growing its ability to accommodate larger volumes.”
The ASCE report singled out for mention a Corps of Engineers project, its Geographic Information System that will create recognized boundaries for every port in the national system. “Traditionally, shippers reported tonnage based on national inland port boundaries rather than geopolitical boundaries. For example, the municipality of Helena, Ark., denotes [its] port by one set of boundaries, while legislation designates different boundaries, and shippers have operated under a third geographic area. This contributes to incorrect tonnage reporting as goods move through these inland ports. To obtain more accurate tonnage reporting, [the Corps] is creating a Geographic Information System (GIS) to prepare enterprise-wide statistical port boundaries. Utilization of geospatial data will improve public reporting and, in turn, create a more accurate data map for policymakers to use when making funding decisions.”
The report noted, “For the first time, in Fiscal Year 2019, total Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund appropriations met the level of new receipts and interest. The subsequent CARES Act codified the requirement that the money coming in must be spent on dredging, as intended by the original creation of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The 2020 Water Resources Development Act took this a step further, allowing for the use of the unspent balance of $9.3 billion dollars in the HMTF by 2030.”
The Ports section of the full report is available at https://infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Ports-2021.pdf.