Is the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card Really a Good Idea?

Wastewater Basin

As a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), I regularly receive information and notices proclaiming their annual "grading" of our nation's infrastructure. There is even a website to promote this effort: My opinion on this might not be popular with my colleagues, but frankly I have never thought this report was valid or a good idea. Finally after reading a LinkedIn thread about how engineers get no respect and a related link criticizing the annual report card, I decided to share my thoughts, as an engineer, on this public relations effort.

First of all, imagine going to the Infrastructure Report Card website as an average citizen – not an engineer. On the site there is a listing of all the different categories of infrastructure we are responsible for designing, building, and maintaining such as water, wastewater, dams, bridges, roads, parks, etc. Not one of them has a grade above a C and the average is a D. Now imagine going to the medical association's website and seeing a listing of items for which they are responsible such as cancer, common cold, fractures, etc. and a related listing of grades. How would you feel about the medical profession if they gave themselves all C and D grades for those? Because on the face of it, that is how it looks to someone who is not involved in the industry – engineers are grading themselves for the work they do and the infrastructure for which they are responsible, and can't manage to get above a D average! Then we wonder why we get no respect!

Now, I realize those responsible for setting up this effort would respond by explaining that no, it's not a grade on our efforts, but a wake up call that government is not giving us enough funds to adequately build and maintain the infrastructure. Because that's what this is really all about, trying to convince legislators they need to funnel more money into infrastructure. But I don't think it's working, and it should be no surprise why not. If I was funding work by a group and the reports kept coming back every year that the work was underperforming, I would start asking some questions such as why is your work failing, what progress is being made with the funds, and what else can be done besides throwing more money at it? 

As an engineer, I am well aware of the need for funding, but as one who has worked in a severely economically depressed city for many years, I also realize that part of my job as an engineer is to figure out how to get the most from the money we have and explain to the elected officials the trade-offs for the different funding levels. Because that is what engineers are supposed to do best – analyze a problem, figure out solutions, attach dollars to them, and let elected officials decide which level of service they want. Then we build the best system we can with the money we receive.

In the last city where I worked, I would have graded our infrastructure efforts as an A because by working together, we were often able to figure out ways to get things done at a very acceptable level with very few dollars. If you drive through that community today, just about every road is in great shape while the neighboring community, whose coffers were always filled with millions more tax dollars than ours, has a proliferation of crumbling roads. This shows that while money is an important component, a successful system also requires people in government working together and making the right choices for the public good with patience and understanding of the goals and the ability to implement creative solutions.

And my past employer is far from unique – the fact is that many cities have systems that are well managed and maintained. I can't imagine anyone traveling across the U.S. coming to any conclusion other than the infrastructure in our country is very good. The true measure of success is demonstrated by the fact that the majority of us make it to work each day without even thinking of the roads we drive on, the water we use to get ready for work, the wastewater system that disposes of all the water we use, the stormwater systems that prevent any rain from keeping us from traveling safely, etc. So the real question is, how are we really measuring this grade?

I get the impression ASCE determines this grade by assuming a life for our assets and assigning a replacement cost then comparing that to funding levels. And because these levels don't match the replacement costs, we must be failing. The flaw in this is that just because something like a water main is more than 50 years old does not mean it is at the verge of imminent failure. But according to ASCE, if politicians don't give us money to rip it out at year 51, that main drops to a D. I've worked in cities where mains were 120 years old and were still delivering water to homes and businesses with no breaks or signs of failure. That's not a D, and it is irresponsible as an engineer to lead people to believe that it should be replaced strictly based on its age. Yesterday an engineer with a national consulting firm told me that in their experience they've noticed the older a main gets, the less chance it actually has of failing. And based on my experience, I agree. We also heard from that engineer and another at a different national firm, that most water main failures are occuring in mains built in the first few years after World War II because there was a decrease in the quality of materials at that time. And I can't understand how anyone can assign a life to PVC water main pipe since we don't have enough experience with it yet to really know how long it will last. Based on all this, it appears age is definitely not the only factor in determining the need for replacement.

So while it is a good idea to have some report of the state of our infrastructure, let's not fabricate the data just to get more business for our profession. And let's not use a grading system that leads people to believe we are all failures at the job with which the public has entrusted us. Instead we should choose to use an accurate and reasonable method of identifying and assessing our assets and reporting the actual projected costs to keep up with the management and maintenance of our system. Because no engineer I know really believes the Infrastructure Report Card is an accurate reflection of our nation's public works systems, it's not achieving the purpose for which ASCE has developed it, and most of us are not too happy that an organization representing our profession is falsely leading people to believe we are failures at our jobs.


Stimulus Money Won’t Stimulate?

I am disappointed to have to write this blog post but wanted to make sure others were aware of what is happening due to the language of the Recovery Bill with respect to road construction. So far, from what I have been told by DOT employees, the only roads that will be eligible to receive funding from this legislation will be Federal Aid routes. And those road projects will only receive funding if they were already programmed for construction and already have an approved project development report, an approved set of plans and specifications, and are on the April letting (if they are in Illinois).

This means that the only local roads eligible to receive this funding are local roads that were going to be built anyway with federal funds and a small portion of local funds. So how is the Recovery legislation funding going to help out immediately in this case? These local roads were going to be built anyway. This is significant because this means that the money from this legislation is not generating new jobs or new work. It is paying for jobs and work that would have been created and paid for anyway. And the small portion of local funds that are saved are not enough to make a major impact on job creation.

As an engineer who has been working in the civil engineering/public works field for 25+ years, I know I can get a significant road project for my community out to bid in a month or two depending on the extent of the reconstruction. However, this is only true if the roadway is not a Federal Aid highway because the process for getting a project out using that funding mechanism is lengthy and time consuming due to policies and regulations.

Now I also realize they are talking about another wave of funding, but that won’t happen immediately either, and again, local governments will not be able to prepare projects fast enough if they have to use the federal aid funding process.

I guess I had thought the desperate economic situation was going to allow our Federal government to actually award local governments the funds they need to rebuild their infrastructure without having to impose all these policies and regulations since the need to put people to work was professed to be the first and foremost concern. Now, I realize that this program, like so many that have been passed before is just throwing money out the door without really thinking about the mechanism and results.

Looking back what really should have been done to make this work would have been first to meet with local government people who understand how projects are designed, bid out, and constructed, and get input on the most efficient and practical method to get jobs out and put people to work. Unfortunately this does not seem to have happened, and now we are faced with not being able to receive significant funds to make much of a difference – at least at the local level.

I don’t have much insight on the other funding programs in the Recovery Bill other than the water and wastewater sections, and in those areas, they are talking about loans and only a portion of grants to local government so again, I am not sure there will be a significant impact. These projects were going forward anyway with local funds, and since the federal money will only be a loan, these local funds will have to go to pay off the loan and will not be freed up to go towards other projects.

With the Senate yet to make a decision, I suppose there is still a chance to fix this, but I have not seen any signs that the Senate will address this aspect of the Recovery Bill. I still believe that spending money on public works projects would significantly stimulate the economy, but first we have to have projects chosen and eligible for funding. And from down here in local government, I am very sorry to say the Recovery Bill does not appear to be focused on granting eligibility to all local projects that are sitting on the shelf ready to go to bid. Hopefully the Federal and State projects will be enough to make a difference.


A Voice from the Trenches

Because as a city engineer/director of public works I have to deal with politics on a daily basis, I usually try to avoid getting involved in hard-core political discussions. But lately with the state of the economy, the policies and direction of my home state, and the comments I hear about selling our nation’s infrastructure, I have become more and more concerned about the direction I see our country heading. Particularly in the area in which I am most involved, Public Works.

What finally prompted me to publicly share my opinion on these issues is the most recent article I saw about an interview with Senator Barack Obama. In the interview he alludes to something I have been thinking about quite a bit. The fact that in hard economic times, the last thing a government should do is cut back on investment in infrastructure.

I would have thought that this would be an obvious conclusion to anyone who has studied history. During difficult economic times, it was always public investment in infrastructure that helped keep people working and helped stabilize the economy. And the added benefit is that this is not money wasted. Read any report on the nation’s infrastructure, or better yet, look out your window at the road you are driving on (particularly in Illinois) and chances are you will find a roadway system in desperate need of repair. And if you could see below the surface you would find additional systems such as water, sewer, phone, cable, electric, and gas that are in a similar state of disrepair or that no longer are sized adequately to meet our growing needs.

Putting all tax dollars into social programs at the expense of fixing infrastructure (which is what the governor of Illinois has been trying to do) only pushes more people into poverty or unemployment. Eventually there is no one left to pay the taxes to support the social programs. Construction workers who once were making enough to afford their own health care then become unemployed, and instead of paying taxes end up needing the social services. From my side of the fence, it has always seemed that the construction industry is part of our country’s economic foundation. Why undermine that by channeling funds away from the very industry that is vital to our economy?

The other side of this is that people tend to forget that our nation’s infrastructure is vital to the defense and stability of our country. Defense is the primary reason that the interstate system was constructed. Today, we are so complacent about needing to protect our country that we fail to remember how important infrastructure is to a country’s defense. To the point that some political “leaders” are not only neglecting to maintain this system but are willing to sell this vital asset to the highest bidder.

We like to think that as we become more global, we would have no threat of an invasion or future war on our soil. But what if we did, and then we find out the very country that declares war on us now owns all our water, sewer, roads, bridges, etc. Perhaps some may say that this opinion or fear is unfounded, but with the recent concern over our national security, I would think the last thing we should think about selling as a nation is one of the most important assets we would need to protect ourselves.

The bottom line is that from down here in the trenches (literally), things don’t look good. There are real people here with real concerns – some who with recent gas prices cannot even afford to buy food for their families. And have already begun to fear that next year will be even worse. I can only hope that Senator Obama’s comments at least start some discussion and serious consideration of how we should be moving forward as a nation, and where our tax money can best be spent. As he indicated, the government cannot go wrong investing in Public Works.