What Keeps the Country Going and Growing?

By Greg Sitek

In one word, CONSTRUCTION.

Construction is a major contributor to the U.S. economy. The industry has more than 733,000 employers with over 7 million employees and creates nearly $1.4 trillion worth of structures each year. Construction is one of the largest customers for manufacturing, mining and a variety of services.   (AGC)

Infrastructure has become a popular word over the past couple of years and it is construction that is responsible for the creation of new physical infrastructure, the maintenance of existing infrastructure and the replacement and updating of current infrastructure.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary:

in·fra·struc·ture| ˈinfrəˌstrək(t)SHər | 


the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise: the social and economic infrastructure of a country

A major/critical component of our infrastructure is our transportation industry and it has gone through tremendous growth and as a result of has suffered tremendous abuse. Consider a simple fact:  without the transportation infrastructure not a single consumable would reach a consumer. At one point, everything that touches us and our lives reaches us via our transportation infrastructure.

In 1950, 150 million Americans drove 48 million vehicles 458 billion miles on 2 billion miles of paved roads. A half-century later, 250 million Americans drove 201 million vehicles 2.4 trillion miles on 4 billion miles of paved roads. Thus the number of Americans increased by two-thirds, the number of roads doubled, the number of vehicles quadrupled, and the number of miles driven increased six-fold. (https://www.encyclopedia.com/science-and-technology/technology/technology-terms-and-concepts/roads)

Our funding to maintain this critically important infrastructure component has not matched the use, strain and wear. Every four years The American Society of Civil Engineers does an Infrastructure Report Card evaluating the nation’s infrastructure which earned a C- for 202, which reflects on how well funded and how well  the funding is managed

According to ASCEThe 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure reveals we’ve made some incremental progress toward restoring our nation’s infrastructure. For the first time in 20 years, our infrastructure is out of the D range.

The 2021 grades range from a B in rail to a D- in transit. Five category grades — aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports — went up, while just one category — bridges — went down. And stormwater infrastructure received its first grade: a disappointing D. Overall, eleven category grades were stuck in the D range, a clear signal that our overdue bill on infrastructure is a long way from being paid off.

While we grade 17 categories individually, our infrastructure is a system of systems and more connected than ever before. As we look at the low grades and analyze the data behind them, there are three trends worth noting:

  1. Maintenance backlogs continue to be an issue, but asset management helps prioritize limited funding. Sectors like transit and wastewater have staggering maintenance deficits, but developing a clear picture of where the available funding is most needed improves overall system performance and public safety. The drinking water sector, for example, has embraced asset management and new technology to pinpoint leaks and target repairs.
  2. State and local governments have made progress. Federal investment, when available, has also positively impacted certain categories. Thirty-seven states have raised their gas tax to fund critical transportation investments since 2010. Ninety-eight percent of local infrastructure ballot initiatives passed in November 2020. At least 25 major cities and states now have chief resilience officers. These improvements were made by elected officials from both sides of the aisle and with strong voter support. Meanwhile, categories like ports, drinking water, and inland waterways have been the beneficiaries of increased federal funding.
  3. There are still infrastructure sectors where data is scarce or unreliable. Sectors like school facilities, levees, and stormwater still suffer from a lack of robust condition information or inventory of assets. To target investments and allocate funding, routine, reliable data should be the standard.

The elected officials and members of the public who have improved infrastructure policy and supported additional funding are applauded. We’re seeing the benefits of this action in drinking water, inland waterways, and airports. The private sector has invested in the electric grid, freight rail, and more.

However, significant challenges lie ahead. Importantly, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on infrastructure revenue streams threaten to derail the modest progress we’ve made over the past four years. In addition, many sectors and infrastructure owners are learning what it will take to make our communities climate resilient as we grapple with more severe weather. Meanwhile, many of our legacy transportation and water resource systems are still in the D range. These infrastructure networks suffer from chronic underinvestment and are in poor condition.

Big and bold action from Washington, as well as continued prioritization by states and localities, is needed to bring all our infrastructure to a state of good repair. This is good news and an indication we’re headed in the right direction, but a lot of work remains.

To see the ASCE 2021 Infrastructure Report Card go to:  https://infrastructurereportcard.org