On ASCE’s Report Card

I was interviewed by Angie Schmitt at Streetblog on Infrastructure propaganda. Her article with Ben Fried: Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi Are Falling for Infrastructure Propaganda discusses the issue of the American Society of Civil Engineer’s (ASCE) Report Card, with choice quotes from Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn (also a former student). Quoting:

David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, agrees there is a conflict. “I just went on radio and said ASCE had ‘motivated reasoning,’ so yeah, I think there is a conflict of interest,” he told Streetsblog via email. “Now that doesn’t mean they are wrong, necessarily, but that they do have the incentive to be inflated.”

For an example of the values that inform the ASCE’s report card, look at the section on highways.

The report gives the nation’s roads a “D” letter grade. Of the total $170 billion in annual road spending ACSE calls for, half is for the repair and operation of existing infrastructure. The other half is for expanding highways.

In making the case for highway expansion, ASCE draws on sources like the Texas Transportation Institute’s famously flawed congestion index, which tends to penalize places that shorten the distances people have to travel, while rewarding places that increase those distances. In other words, it is biased toward sprawl and against walkable places.

As Levinson points out, congestion could be managed by properly pricing roads, rather than expanding them, but this option is completely ignored by ASCE.

Some infrastructure in Washington DC.  Pavements are beginning to fail, yet cars continue to drive.
Some infrastructure in Washington DC. Pavements are beginning to fail, yet cars continue to drive.

Are roads and water both a “D”?

In the ASCE report card drinking water gets a “D”. They write:

“At the dawn of the 21st century, much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA). The quality of drinking water in the United States remains universally high, however. Even though pipes and mains are frequently more than 100 years old and in need of replacement, outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare.”

To be sure 240,000 sounds like a big number, but it is less than 1 break per 1000 people in the US (I know water mains serve more than 1 person, but that count of failures include many, many small ones for each one that gets on the news). Now I am sure drinking water in the US could be better somehow, and Flint is a tragedy, but almost everyone in the US turns on the tap, gets water instantly. The water is clean, and so almost no one in the US dies from drinking water anymore. A 90+/100 usually scores an A. The Environmental Engineers are to be commended. They have been so good, they almost put themselves out of a job.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

So let’s grant that over the next 100 years all the pipes need to be replaced due to potential failures (broken mains, leakages, etc.). And let’s grant that would be $1T (ignoring inflation/discounting etc) (I have no clue what the real number is). This seems a lot, like about $3000/person. But that’s still only $10B/year (or $30/person/year) which is $2.50 per person per monthly water bill for capital replacement, or $0.10/day/person, which seems eminently doable, and is the responsibility of local water utilities, either private regulated utilities, and/or owned by local governments.

If you think it needs to be done in 50 years, double it. This hardly constitutes a crisis. In medical terms, the condition is chronic, not acute.

About Roads, they write:

“Forty-two percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually. While the conditions have improved in the near term, and Federal, state, and local capital investments for road infrastructure increased to $91 billion annually, that level of investment is insufficient and still projected to result in a decline in conditions and performance in the long term. Currently, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion in capital investment would be needed on an annual basis to significantly improve conditions and performance.”

  • First, note that phrase “conditions AND performance”, that means maintaining highway LOS, not just pavement surface quality.
  • Second, note this is for unpriced roads. If roads were properly priced, congestion would go down significantly. (Pricing also raises revenues).
  • Third, it makes no assumption about more efficient use of roads from Autonomous Vehicles. While they are not deployed yet, over the expected lifetime of new infrastructure, they will be. It takes a particular type of ostrich to just ignore this.
  • Fourth, again they don’t make the case as to why this (or any of it) is a federal rather than state and local responsibility. They do say “federal, state, and local” need to come up with the money, and they are indifferent to which (green is green). But it matters in practice.
  • Fifth $101 Billion in wasted time and fuel is supposed to be solved by $170 Billion in investment. I am not exactly clear on how much of that $170B (or more precisely $170B-$91B= $79B) goes to reduce, but not eliminate, $101B, (it seems like half since $85B is supposed to go to State of Good Repair, so I guess the other $85B goes to safety and congestion issues) from their report)  but it doesn’t sound like it’s a good idea. It’s not at all clear the benefits outweigh the costs, unless that $85B reduces congestion or fuel costs by at least $85B to $16B ($101-$85=$16) which seems unlikely.
  • Sixth $101B sounds like a lot of time and money, this is of course a TTI Urban Mobility Report estimate. It is a little over $300/person/year, or less than $1/day/person, or less than $0.25/trip, which is again annoying and perhaps needlessly wasteful, but not a crisis.

So yeah, Roads get scored a “D”, and this is probably more apt than water, and we could do better, but I do not think the solutions are what they think they are.

So what does a “D” even mean?

The rubric is given at: http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/a/#p/about-the-report-card/methodology

The infrastructure is in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of significant concern with strong risk of failure.”

My students would complain if the grading rubric were that vague. “Good” and “Fair” (and so on) conditions are labels for specific performance levels in each infrastructure (roads, bridges, I assume the others). I think they are defined according to specific reasonably objective performance levels for a specific technology (for example pavement roughness for pavement, bridge conditions for bridges).  But how is a good road compared to a good bridge?

But when ASCE says “many”, how many? When they say “a large portion”, what share? When they say “strong risk of failure”, how strong. If a bridge were known to have even a 0.1% chance of failing tomorrow, it would be closed immediately by the Professional Engineer in charge. Failing in a bridge is very different than failing in roads (and pavement condition failure is different from level of service failure).

Not all roads are in poor to fair condition. Many are brand new. Many elements ARE nearing end of life, but of course, many should be, so are many people, that is what is meant about managing across the lifecycle. It would be terribly inefficient if everything both opened the same year and then failed 50 years in the future also in the same year. When we know where a facility is on the lifecycle, at some appropriate point we make a repair/replace/abandon decision.

I can see grading individual elements in a given technology (An “A” vs a “D” bridge is perhaps a meaningful comparison if it represents the same objective elements). I am not sure how they average bridges across the system, (we all know how to do an average, but there are lots of ways to do averages, and they usually should be weighted somehow). You could certainly have an average bridge or average road, but those are always fine, usually people talk about the share of bridges which are structurally deficient (or “functionally obsolete”) or in “poor condition”.  For bridges, see e.g. the report on which this USA Today article is based,  or this similar bridge tool by T4 America.

Also note that scoring a report card grade of “A” (and maybe “B” or “C”) is overbuilding for anything but a brand-new infrastructure.