A Report Card of American Infrastructure

I'm prefacing this post with a very big, "this is my opinion" statement.  As a member of American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and a local chair of Structural Engineering Institute (SEI, an umbrella organization of ASCE) I must tell you that I speak now for neither of these parties.  It's only fair to make that very clear because what I have to say is not at all what they have to say.  In fact, aside from a few secretive conversations with people, I feel like I am the only one to have this opinion but know it must not be the case.  I also want to say that I'm not just a complainer, I am actually a doer.  I had the opportunity to work on the project I am about to discuss though I had to decline.  I am far too involved in so many other volunteer things I simply did not have the time to assist, but am at a point in my career that when I have the opportunity I will become involved.  I have found that sometimes, quiet observation with subtle nudges in the right places get things done just as well as heavily oiling the squeaky wheel.

Now, onto my rant (envision me standing on a soapbox, because it's really the only way to imagine me now)...

ASCE publishes an annual ASCE Infrastructure Report Card for the good old USA.  Here is a link to the 2009 Report Card.  Below are some snippets of what grades the US received overall. [Because 2009 is so readily available, I will really only be talking about it, though know '10-'12 followed suit]

You'll notice that there isn't a grade above a C.  I've seen some of the other reports coming out of local chapters and know that 2012 is about the same.  Very few good grades. 

Now I know that the secret to this report card success is that having bad grades gets attention.  People give kudos to the student who does well; but the student with bad grades gets attention in order to help him.  He's the student that parent's will spend loads of money on to have a tutor or to send to a special school.  What does this mean for our country?  It means the President bats his eyes to Congress to say, "look how poor our baby is doing in school, we need $1.6 trillion to get a good grade".

Again, let me interject, I have written to my House Rep and Congress person on several occasions regarding infrastructure projects or engineering related issues that I thought were relevant enough to write about.  I wrote as both an ASCE member and a regular constituent.  Some of these issues I am sure have been included in the report card.  So call me a hypocrite or inconsistent supporter, that's not really what I'm writing about today.

Back to the report card...as an ASCE member I am privy to what goes into the report card.  As an internet searcher you are privy to know some statistics that went into the report card.  For example,  my home State, "18% of Illinois’ bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete".  Do not panic at this figure.  I know when most people think of bridges, they think of the big ones.  We are not talking about the I-35W Bridge of Minneapolis!  I would venture to guess you drive and walk on so many bridges you no longer pay attention to them, just the big ones.  While 18% shouldn't be acceptable, are we really saying it's a D?  What about third world countries?  Am I too concerned with grading on a curve?

Similarly, as for drinking water, Illinois claimed " drinking water infrastructure needs an investment of $13.5 billion over the next 20 years".  Sure, I might buy that, but that amount doesn't tell us that Illinois already receives a certain amount of money anyway for such investments.  Also, I know that these investments, while are nice to have, are not always necessary.  In fact, I would guess a large portion of Illinois (because it's a big state outside of Chicago) still use WELL WATER!  Along these same lines, and along with my grading curve, what about countries that have little to no available drinking water where it's estimated that over 1 billion people are effected worldwide.  Are we still C's and D's?

I could really go on and on about some of these grades.  I do realize that we are grading ourselves and by giving ourselves bad grades, we only have room for improvement. I know this is how, as engineers with little other say, we can get the attention we need.  I know that our opinions are skewed because we see or know something the layperson does not.  We are even skewed because we are biased.  I'd be a fool to consider myself unbiased on most things.  With that said though, I have a hard time swallowing a D when you look at a place like Dubai who thought NOTHING of sewage treatment, they deserve a D or an F, not us.

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