Transportation Policy Academy 2013 – DC – Part 3: Brian Pallasch, American Society of Civil Engineers

Day two of the CSG Transportation Policy Academy in Washington, D.C. included a transportation policy roundtable featuring a variety of transportation stakeholders and experts. Among them was Brian Pallasch, Managing Director for Government Relations and Infrastructure Initiatives at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). He spoke about ASCE’s 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

“The Report Card provides an in depth assessment of the current infrastructure conditions and investment needs,” Pallasch told the state legislators in attendance. “America’s cumulative GPA rose slightly … from the last report card to a D-plus. In 2009, it was a D. Not really something we want to brag about but it is movement in the right direction. … However our underperforming infrastructure is a drag on the economy. It leads to a lower GDP and fewer jobs for American families. … The Report Card highlights the fact that, like everything, infrastructure has a lifespan. Good maintenance can extend that lifespan but not forever and a lack of maintenance actually shortens it significantly. This is not something that happens dramatically overnight but gradually and worsening over time.”

“Far too many of our systems lack the funding needed for proper maintenance and we continue to see categories that are simply not seeing the levels of investment to improve day-to-day performance and save money in the long term. The backlog of projects to maintain and modernize our infrastructure keeps growing.”

“When our roads prevent trucks from getting from point A to point B to deliver goods, we suffer. … When our ports can’t keep pace with the realities of international commerce, we suffer. It hurts our GDP, our ability to create jobs, our disposable income, our competitiveness with other nations. It also affects really our quality of life on a day-to-day basis. Deteriorating and aging infrastructure is not only an inconvenience, but … it financially impacts our families, local communities and our entire economy. When it’s in bad shape, we all suffer.”

“More than 40 percent of our urban highways … are congested. That means Americans waste 2 billion gallons of gas every year and folks spent more than $7 billion on gas idling in traffic. … Thirty-two percent of major roads are in poor or mediocre condition. That costs all of us who are driving on deficient pavement an average of $300 per driver in additional repairs and operating costs.”

“We estimate that across all 16 categories, there is a need of investment of $3.6 trillion, which I know is an absurdly large number and a hard one to actually compute and to think about. But the good news—if there’s good news in that number—is that we’re going to spend over the course of time up to 2020 about $2 trillion of that. That’s if we keep pace with the current levels of spending. … But the gap that’s needed to fix the infrastructure is about $1.6 trillion and over that eight-year time period, that’s obviously about $200 billion a year. It sounds a little bit insurmountable but it is one of those things where we need to start moving to close some of that gap.”

“There is some positive news. Grades actually went up in six categories. And really that’s in part because of increased state and local leadership and I can’t say that enough. I think state and local governments are really stepping to the plate and you guys are part of that, being able to stand up and say ‘we’re going to take care of ourselves.’”

“The grade for bridges went up as states took the lead in reducing the number of structurally deficient bridges. However, it’s a little bit staggering, there are 66,000 structurally deficient bridges in this country. We have 600,000 bridges (overall).  … That’s 11 percent. … One in nine of our bridges is structurally deficient. Twenty-two states have a higher percentage than that 11 percent. … They’re higher than the national average.”

“The rail sector saw some of the most improvement in this report card. They actually moved two grade slots from a C-minus to a C-plus. That’s really due to the freight rail industry investing in the infrastructure. They actually used the economic downturn to spend some time on their assets and they invested $75 billion since 2009 in their system which has improved it and has made it work better. What this shows is very simple: when we invest in projects and move forward, we see results.”

“Continuing to raise grades will require that we seek and adopt a wide range of solutions. ASCE has developed three key solutions that we think will continue this positive trend. … We need increased leadership focusing on infrastructure renewal and really it’s at all levels of government—state, local and federal. America’s infrastructure needs that bold leadership and a compelling vision. We need to all come together and put in some good ideas and move forward. Second, we need to promote sustainability and resilience. Recent events: we have flooding in Colorado. … The infrastructure damage was tremendous. … They’re estimating … a little bit north of $400 million to replace some of the roads systems and other systems that they had. We’re sitting here on the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy and certainly the effects of that storm were much more significant. But what either of those events remind us is how vulnerable the infrastructure systems can be to extreme weather. As infrastructure is rebuilt or rehabilitated we really must consider this notion of lifecycle cost, building in resilience which from our perspective means building things a little bit stronger and able to withstand some of these natural occurrences. And finally … we must agree on how to prioritize and plan strategic new investments in infrastructure that position our communities for the future. … We need to pick the right projects and for the right reasons and then ultimately we need to fund those projects. We need to actually think about how we’re spending and what we’re spending on infrastructure.”

“At the federal level … we’ve started the yearlong countdown—we are (29) days into it—to the expiration of the federal surface transportation authorization bill, which is known as MAP-21. The Highway Trust Fund by next September 30th will essentially be bankrupt unless something happens. And the chart that (the Congressional Budget Office) put out recently is very simple. The federal government will apportion to the states … zero. It’s a very simple chart.”

“The time for all of us to act and get involved is now. Our roads, our bridges, our water systems … our electric grid … they’re the  foundation that connects our nation’s businesses, communities and people. We need to call on all of our elected officials at all levels … to make that infrastructure investment a higher priority. We need to engage leadership at all levels of government to continue a commitment to fix our infrastructure. There’s no silver bullet to fixing the infrastructure. But make no mistake: unless we address the backlog of projects and deferred maintenance throughout the country, the cost to each American family … reaches about $3100 in disposable income every year. And that clock started ticking about a year ago when we released (the Failure to Act) report. And so over the course of the nine years of our report, it ends up being close to $28,000 that American families will lose in disposable income. …”

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