America Needs to Get Its Infrastructure Grades Up

It will take substantial investment to bring critical facilities up to suitable condition. Effective communication to officials and customers is a key to making it happen.
America Needs to Get Its Infrastructure Grades Up
Greg DiLoreto

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If America’s infrastructure were a student, he or she would be a candidate for remedial classes. In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave an overall grade of D-plus to the condition of our water, energy, transportation, waste management and other critical systems.

In the language of letter grades, that’s just half a step above “poor.” Drinking water earned a D and wastewater a D-plus. In general, it’s not a pretty picture, and it hasn’t been since 1998, when the ASCE began issuing its Report Card every four years.

The Report Card section on wastewater notes that 76 percent of the nation’s population is served by 14,748 treatment plants and that 56 million new users will connect to centralized treatment systems over the next 20 years, requiring at least $271 billion of investment to meet current and future needs. The report also notes that through new technologies that turn waste into energy, the nation’s 1,269 biogas plants are helping communities manage waste streams more effectively.

On the drinking water side, the Report Card states that drinking water is delivered to the nation’s homes and businesses through one million miles of pipes, many laid 75 to 100 years ago. Even though water consumption is down, about 240,000 water main breaks per year waste more than 2 trillion gallons of treated water. The report cites an AWWA estimate that $1 trillion will be needed to maintain and expand service to meet demands over the next 25 years.

A key to unleashing infrastructure spending is to help elected officials and the general public understand how important infrastructure is and the benefits of making the needed investment, according to Greg DiLoreto, a past president of ASCE and chair of Committee on America’s Infrastructure. DiLoreto is a former chief executive officer of the Tualatin Valley Water District in Oregon and a former Public Works director with other cities. He talked about infrastructure matters in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.
What is the exact function of your ASCE committee?

DiLoreto: The Committee on America’s Infrastructure includes about 30 members who are experts in the 16 categories of infrastructure that we grade in the Report Card. Between those experts and the ASCE staff, we review and interpret published data, compare it to data from four years ago, and see whether the grades should rise, fall or stay the same. In the 2017 Report Card we had seven categories that went up and three that went down.

TPO: Why do you think the overall Report Card grade and the individual grades have stayed so low for so long?

DiLoreto: The clear indication is that we are under-investing in our infrastructure. Our Report Card has a D-plus overall, and we believe that in order to meet capacity conditions and have the economic prosperity, competitiveness and quality of life we desire, we need to have a B. And we need to invest for that to happen. Between now and 2025 we show total needs of $4.6 trillion, but based on current funding streams, we are investing $2.5 trillion. So overall, we’re looking at a shortfall of $2.1 trillion.

TPO: How does a large figure like that translate into something an average person could understand?

DiLoreto: To put it in perspective, this shortfall in infrastructure funding costs every American family $3,400 a year, or about $9 a day, in lost disposable income. That represents costs they have to pay, for example, to get their car repaired because it hit a pothole. Or because they’re wasting time in traffic and wasting gas. Closing that $2.1 trillion gap would only cost about $4 a day. That’s a pretty good return on an investment.

TPO: What do you observe about the Report Card grades for water and wastewater?

DiLoreto: Our Report Card doesn’t deal with water quality or wastewater discharge quality. It deals with the physical assets. The wastewater grade went up from a D to a D-plus, and that’s because those agencies are making a little more investment than before. Drinking water stayed the same, at a D. The first dollar water agencies get goes to water quality because they want to provide safe, clean drinking water. Money left after those funds are expended goes to pipe replacement, pump station repair and other projects.

TPO: What investments account for the improvement on the wastewater side?

DiLoreto: We’ve seen an increase in expenditures on treatment plant repairs and replacements, as well as pipe work aimed at eliminating infiltration and inflow. Agencies are also making their treatment plants more resilient.

TPO: What sources of funding are being tapped to make these improvements?

DiLoreto: Infrastructure overall is a user-based system. No matter how the financing comes together, at the end of the day, the users pay for it through the rates charged for wastewater and drinking water. The problem is that many agencies have a hard time raising their rates enough to meet their needs. As they continue to fall behind, projects become more expensive, and then they have to raise rates even more to catch up.

TPO: Do you see more agencies getting rate increases approved because they are becoming more effective at making the argument?

DiLoreto: Yes. At the drinking water agency that I led, we adjusted our rates every year at least by the cost of inflation. We communicated with our customers about what we were doing, what they were getting for the money they were already paying, and what they were going to get for the adjusted rate. In the 30 years I worked in the public sector I didn’t have a problem doing that because our customers wanted safe and reliable drinking water, and they wanted wastewater taken away safely and treated properly. The more we talk to customers about what they’re getting and about the impacts of not investing, the easier it is to pass those rate increases.

TPO: So would you say that effective communication plays a big part of filling the gap in infrastructure investment?

DiLoreto: Yes. And our Report Card is an advocacy piece for talking to elected officials and the general public to help them understand the issues. Infrastructure is fundamental to the quality of life. We need that basic infrastructure if we want to continue living the way we do.

TPO: What is the role of leadership and planning in filling the investment gap?

DiLoreto: During the last presidential campaign, both candidates ran on a platform of increased investment in infrastructure. So did a number of candidates for Congress. The same thing occurred at the state and local levels. All those people who got elected on that platform now need to live up to their campaign promises — make those laws and increase funding. One of the major uses of our Report Card is to help our elected officials show people what the condition of the infrastructure is and why it’s important to invest in it. We can’t do much of anything if we’re not adequately investing. We have to agree as a country and as individuals who use the systems that we want them to work right and be reliable, and we have to invest for that to happen.

TPO: How do we get people to focus attention on those unseen underground assets and give them the priority they deserve?

DiLoreto: The crises we’ve seen recently have raised understanding about the importance of those facilities. Then it goes back to communication by the people who lead the utilities. They have to make that case so that people understand. Just as people couldn’t live in their house if the roof leaked, they couldn’t live in their house if the water system were shut off.

TPO: What are the future consequences of failing to make the necessary investments?

DiLoreto: In 2012 and 2016, we created studies called Failure to Act. We reported that if we make the additional $2.1 trillion investment we need, we could avoid a $3.9 trillion loss to our gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025 — that’s the current (GDP) of Germany. If we make the investment, we can also avoid a $7 trillion loss to businesses by 2025. To cite just one example, when a waterline breaks, businesses have to shut down. The business doesn’t get income. Employees are sent home and don’t get paid. Those are the kinds of things that happen. If we make the investment, we can also avoid the loss of 2.5 million high-paying jobs that would occur by 2025 because we are no longer economically competitive with the rest of the world.

TPO: In light of all this, what actions does ASCE recommend in the years to come?

DiLoreto: We recommend increasing investment in infrastructure from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of our GDP. We need leadership, bold leadership, to live up to those campaign promises. We have to design and build our projects sustainably based on the triple bottom line: the economy, the environment and society. We have to make them resilient so that storms like Hurricane Sandy don’t wipe them out. And finally, we have to look at the total cost of projects — not just the first cost but the entire cost from the time they’re built until they’re retired.


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