U.S. infrastructure receives C- grade on ASCE’s 2021 report card

Last week, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, giving overall infrastructure in the United States a cumulative grade of C-. Although the report card finds the country is spending just over half of what is needed, it’s the first time infrastructure as a whole has received a grade in the ‘C’ range.

Drinking water’s grade improved to a C-, while wastewater again scored a D+ and stormwater — being graded for the first time — earned a D.

The study, conducted every four years, evaluated 17 categories of infrastructure, with grades ranging from a ‘B’ for Rail to a ‘D-’ for Transit. For the first time in 20 years, the country’s infrastructure as a whole received a grade in the ‘C’ range, meaning on average, the nation’s infrastructure is in mediocre condition, has deficiencies and needs attention. However, 11 of the 17 categories in the Report Card received a grade in the ‘D’ range: aviation, dams, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, roads, schools, stormwater, transit and wastewater.

Over the past four years, the U.S. made incremental gains in some categories, according to the report card. Due 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.” Transit received a ‘D-’ in the report, the lowest grade.  

Overall, the long-term infrastructure investment gap continues to grow. That gap has risen from $2.1 trillion over 10 years in the last report to $2.59 trillion in the latest study, meaning a funding gap of $259 billion per year.

“This not a report card anyone would be proud to take home. We have not made significant enough investments to maintain infrastructure that in some cases was built more than 50 years ago,” said ASCE Executive Director Thomas Smith. “As this study shows, we risk significant economic losses, higher costs to consumers, businesses and manufacturers – and our quality of life – if we don’t act urgently. When we fail to invest in infrastructure, we pay the price.”

Here are some brief summaries taken from the report card on the water infrastructure grades.

Drinking Water: C-

Drinking water received a C- grade, which ASCE notes is a major improvement over the D score it earned in 2017. According to ASCE, there is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water lost each day in the U.S. enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools. However, there are signs of progress as federal financing programs expand and water utilities raise rates to reinvest in their networks. It is estimated that more than 12,000 miles of water pipes were planned to be replaced by drinking water utilities across the country in the year 2020 alone.

ASCE adds that new monitoring technology and increased adoption of asset management plans have helped address typical drinking water utility challenges like water loss and water main breaks. In 2019, about a third of all utilities had a robust asset management program in place to help prioritize their capital and operations/maintenance investments, which is an increase from 20 percent in 2016. Click here for more details on the drinking water findings from the report card.

Wastewater: D+

The nation’s more than 16,000 wastewater treatment plants are functioning, on average, at 81 percent of their design capacities, while 15 percent have reached or exceeded it. Growing urban environments signal a trend that these facilities will increasingly accommodate a larger portion of the nation’s wastewater demand. Though large-scale capital improvements have been made to systems experiencing sanitary sewer overflows, efforts have slowed in recent years. As many treatment plants and collection networks approach the end of their lifespans, the financial responsibilities for operation and maintenance will become more costly. Estimates indicate that utilities spent over $3 billion in 2019, or more than $18 per wastewater customer to replace the almost 4,700 miles of pipeline nationwide. Recently, the more prevalent use of asset management plans enables 62 percent of surveyed utilities to proactively manage wastewater infrastructure maintenance rather than reactively respond to pipeline and equipment failures. As of 2019, the annual water infrastructure capital investment gap was about $81 billion. Click here for more info on the findings from the wastewater section of the report card.

Stormwater: D

On stormwater, the report card finds the sector faces a funding gap of about $8 billion annually. Stormwater systems range from large concrete storm sewers, roadside ditches and flood control reservoirs, to rain gardens and natural riverine systems. Stormwater utilities are on the rise, with more than 40 states having at least one, according to the report card. The impervious surfaces in cities and suburbs are also expanding, exacerbating urban flooding, which results in $9 billion in damages annually.

Stormwater also affects water quality as polluted runoff from pavement enters water bodies. Nearly 600,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 13 million acres of lakes, reservoirs, and ponds are considered impaired. Federal funding, though up in recent years, averages about $250 million annually, which leaves the growing annual funding gap of $8 billion just to comply with current regulations. Click here for more information on the stormwater findings from the report card.

ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure

Released every four years, ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure depicts the condition and performance of American infrastructure in the familiar form of a school report card. The report addresses the state of various construction markets across the full spectrum of infrastructure, from roads, rail, aviation, ports, bridges, dams and parks, to schools, transit, energy, waste and drinking water, wastewater, and now, stormwater.

Since 1998, U.S. infrastructure has earned persistent D averages, and the failure to close the investment gap with needed maintenance and improvements has continued.

On the last report card in 2017, U.S. infrastructure received a cumulative grade of D+, while drinking water received a D and wastewater scored a D+.

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