Jan 28, 2009

World - US;US roads, water and basic systems earn 'D' grade


WASHINGTON – America's roads, public transit and aviation have gotten worse in the past four years. Water and sewage systems are dreadful. The basic physical backbone of American society is barely above failing, a report by top engineers says.

It'll cost $2.2 trillion to fix America's ailing infrastructure, according to highlights of a report being released early, just as the House of Representatives readies its first vote on President Barack Obama's call for a massive economic stimulus spending package.

The country's roads, dumps, dams, bridges, schools and rail systems need lots of that money, say the engineers, who would get a piece of the pie in working on the repairs. Government officials are already aiming billions of dollars at those physical needs as part of what at the moment is a $825 billion economic stimulus package. But the engineers say that's not enough.

Overall, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. physical backbone for everything from schools and parks to dams and levees a D. That's the same overall grade as the last time the group gave a report, in 2005, but it really is slipping from a "high D" to a "low D," said report chairman Andrew Herrmann.

Herrmann, an engineer with the New York firm Hardesty & Hanover, said his group is issuing the highlights of the report — the full document won't be out until late March — "to be relevant ... investing in our infrastructure will create jobs."

Of the 15 areas the engineers looked at, three got worse and only one got better. The three that worsened were all transportation oriented: aviation dropped from a D+ to a D; so did public transit; and America's intricate roadway system potholed from a D to a D-. Only the energy system improved, from a D to a D+.

In 2005, the engineers said it would cost what would be $1.7 trillion in current dollars to fix what's broken. Now the pricetag is up to $2.2 trillion.

"That just goes to show that waiting has cost money," Herrmann told The Associated Press on Tuesday evening. "We haven't made any progress in four years. If my kid came home with 11 Ds and 4 Cs, I know I wouldn't be happy."

America's solid waste system was the only C+ on the report card. Bridges got a C; parks and rail systems managed C-. The only D+ plus was for energy. Solid Ds went to aviation, dams, hazardous waste, schools and public transit. The worst grades, D-, went to drinking water, inland waterways, roads and sewage systems.

"That absolutely makes sense," said Granger Morgan, head of Carnegie Mellon University's engineering and public policy program and an expert who wasn't part of the 28-engineer panel that handed out the grades. Morgan said just traveling the world shows that American infrastructure, especially in transportation, "is certainly not in the same league as parts of the developing world and parts of Europe."

But just because the federal government is handing out lots of money and society's physical backbone needs plenty of repairs, that doesn't automatically mean the government should spend most of its dollars on things such as new roads and power plants, Morgan said. Often, building newer roads doesn't fix congestion, yet building better public transit would pay off more, he said. And spending on energy efficiency more than physical power plants makes sense, he added.

"One really needs to make these choices on a bit of solid engineering economics as opposed to emotion and rhetoric," Morgan said. "We've got an enormous pent-up need. The only message is: `Let's be careful to the extent that we can in the manner we spend the money.'"

And even though the pricetag to fix America's physical needs is $2.2 trillion over five years, it's really only half that bad because $1.1 trillion of that is already being spent or planned, Herrmann said. The biggest "gap" between what's being spent or planned and what's needed is an additional $548.5 billion in roads and bridges, the report said. Second is $189.5 billion for public transit.

"Do you realize we're driving on a lot of roads that were built during the Eisenhower Administration," Herrmann said.

The report, the first one issued since Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, added America's 100,000 miles of levees as a new area of failing infrastructure. Levees, which hold back floodwaters, get a D minus grade, with the report saying, "The risk to the public health and safety from failure has increased."

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