Defense Media Network

Failing Infrastructure in America

The rot continues

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If your child came home with consistently failing grades on report cards, what would you do? You might at first get mad with them for not taking their subjects seriously or not doing the work they were supposed to do.

If it kept happening you might schedule an appointment at their school to meet with the teacher or principal to set a course of action to correct the failure. Somewhere in between there, your child might get a tutor, an after school study buddy, or even be grounded until things turned around for the better. But what if the failing grades kept coming? What would you do?

This year’s average grade point average (GPA) was a D+, which is up from the previous GPA of D issued in the earlier report card of 2009. Talk about improvement.

That’s the question American taxpayers have to ask themselves after getting the latest installment of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2013 Report Card on America’s Infrastructure. Issued every four years, the report is a comprehensive assessment by a select group of ASCE experts on our nation’s roads, bridges, utilities, ports and more, and details what’s right and what’s wrong with the infrastructure that underpins our economy and way of life.

This year’s average grade point average (GPA) was a D+, which is up from the previous GPA of D issued in the earlier report card of 2009. Talk about improvement.

Critical infrastructure was severely flooded during Hurricane Sandy, and the storm destroyed key terminals, Newark, N.J., Dec. 12, 2012. FEMA provides supplemental Federal disaster grant assistance for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster-damaged, publicly owned facilities and the facilities of certain Private Non-Profit (PNP) organizations. FEMA photo by Adam DuBrowa

Critical infrastructure was severely flooded during Hurricane Sandy, and the storm destroyed key terminals in the port of Newark, N.J., Dec. 12, 2012. FEMA provides supplemental Federal disaster grant assistance for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster-damaged, publicly owned facilities and the facilities of certain Private Non-Profit (PNP) organizations. FEMA photo by Adam DuBrowa

It would be easy to declare each of these report cards an embarrassment, but the truth is they could be more accurately described as routine. According to ASCE’s 2013 Executive Summary, “Since 1998, the grades have been near failing, averaging only Ds, due to delayed maintenance and underinvestment across most categories.”

Albert Einstein is often credited with defining insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That definition is blisteringly accurate when you consider how the federal government has reinforced and continues to use many of the same funding mechanisms to pay for the needed upgrades and enhancements our nation’s infrastructure needs.

Let’s be even more honest about the situation: It’s hard to project international economic and innovative leadership in the 21st century when the infrastructure needed to support those positions is still relegated to the last century’s state of the art, and has all of the wear and tear and degraded conditions fully visible for all to see.

The blame for this situation rests squarely on the culprits of politics, bureaucracy, incompetence, and lack of appropriate resources. Sadly, the thing in greatest supply is the rhetoric used by politicians of every level and political spectrum, proclaiming, “we need to do something about our infrastructure,” but lacking the will or foresight to actually get the job done.

Fortunately there are a few leaders, notably in the Commonwealth of Virginia and in other places in the country, that have begun to think creatively in creating new funding mechanisms and in using public-private partnerships to address critical needs in roads, bridges, tunnels and more. Unfortunately, that creativity has not gone as far as we need it to go. In an era where budgets at every level are going to be more and more constricted, things need to change across the board.

For as depressing as the overall report card is, there are two positive spots. The first is the grade in solid waste, which is a B-. If this were an advanced algebra course that might be a worthy enough grade for posting on the refrigerator to admire, but the fact that we lead in the trash category but are failing in transit, drinking water and in the structure of our schools (among other categories) is beyond ridiculous. Essentially, we passed in crap.

Oh, joy.

A train, reported to be carrying vinyl chloride, is derailed in Paulsboro, N.J., Nov. 30, 2012, after the railway bridge crossing Mantua Creek collapsed. The derailment prompted a multiagency emergency response. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cindy Oldham

A train, reported to be carrying vinyl chloride, is derailed in Paulsboro, N.J., Nov. 30, 2012, after the railway bridge crossing Mantua Creek collapsed. The derailment prompted a multiagency emergency response. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cindy Oldham

The second positive point is the introduction of the evaluation criteria of “resilience.” In reviewing previous reports, it would seem this category is a new measure being applied to the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card. While it may be a new measure that is being applied to grade our infrastructure, I don’t see it as a means that weighted any of the grades any more negatively than they already were trending. If anything, this category is recognition of how important it is for our infrastructure to perform at peak efficiency on the good days, but even more critically, that it be robust enough to endure the bad ones when threats such as fires, floods, tornadoes, accidents and other risk factors strike to disrupt its operations.

Homeland security leaders in public and private sectors have enough daily challenges to deal with, without having anything added to their already overburdened environment. Every one of those persons trains and prepares to do their utmost to preserve and protect our way of life and ensure that we can endure the worst of circumstances, but when the foundations they rely upon (e.g. roads, transit, utilities, ports, etc.) are crumbling, how long do you expect them to be able to perform?

The blame for this situation rests squarely on the culprits of politics, bureaucracy, incompetence, and lack of appropriate resources. Sadly, the thing in greatest supply is the rhetoric used by politicians of every level and political spectrum, proclaiming, “we need to do something about our infrastructure,” but lacking the will or foresight to actually get the job done.

Too often we look at infrastructure as a cost, rather than an investment. People need to be reminded of that when their power goes out for long periods of time, when a road is closed because it’s been washed out, when an airport cannot handle the traffic coming into and out of it or when goods cannot make it into a port.

This does not mean we should be writing blank checks to owners and operators of these structures to just keep building. Better public accountability, strategic planning, adequate resources and actionable plans need to become the norm over the calcified institutional processes in place today that have delivered decades of failure.

How do we know that?  Take a good look around you and you’ll see the infrastructure decay. More importantly we now have decades of grades that sadly prove it, and it’s our own fault if we allow failure to continue.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...