The American Society of Civil Engineers comes out with an annual report card on America’s infrastructure and it’s almost always grim… otherwise how would it make news?
This year the ASCE gives our infrastructure a D grade, same as last year except that we are now at a D- instead of a straight D.
Quite honestly I think we are looking at this all wrong. If we consider that the time required to build infrastructure projects remains stubbornly long and spiraling costs actually form the major impediment to retrofitting and replacement, well maybe it’s the ASCE that deserves the D grade.
It’s true that we build structures that are safer and satisfy diverse constituent requirements but at what cost? It is impossible to move the ASCE grade up to a B with the constraints and costs that these projects require; it should be a core mission of the civil engineering industry to find and implement new technologies that not only offer performance advantages but also cost and time to construct advantages.
Let’s take a look at two examples. The Brooklyn Bridge began construction in 1870 and completed in 1883 for a cost of $15.5 million, which adjusted for inflation is about $2.5 billion in today’s dollars. 125 years later it still stands and serves the critical needs of New Yorkers who walk and bike across it, travel by train, and take their cars on a bridge originally designed for horse drawn carriages. A $725 million project, 1/3 of the original cost to build the entire bridge (adjusted for inflation) is underway to replace approaches and repaint it.
The SF Bay Bridge began construction in May 1933 and completed in November 1936, the total cost was $77 million, or $1.2 billion in today’s dollars. This is real progress because in a 60 year span the civil engineering industry figured out how to build a much more complicated bridge than the Brooklyn Bridge, and much larger as well, for half of the cost (again, using very simple inflation adjusting math, which is subject to inaccuracies but used to illustrate a general point) and in a much shorter project time span.
Engineers knew for 30 years that the Bay Bridge was at risk in an earthquake and it was the 1989 earthquake which damaged the bridge that finally brought the issue into public consciousness, almost 20 years ago. After 10 years of study and debate it was agreed that a replacement for just the eastern span would be the best option.
Construction began in 2002 with an estimated cost of $1.1 billion, roughly equal to the original build cost. A significant design modification caused the price tag to balloon to $2.6 billion in 2003 and then skyrocket to $6.7 billion in 2005. The original completion date was 2007, 2 years longer than the original complete build required but as it turns out, a massively optimistic projection as the new scheduled completion data is not until 2013… 11 years from when construction began and only 2 years better than the Brooklyn Bridge required in 1870.
How the hell can we expect, as a country, to invest in large scale infrastructure retrofitting and replacement with these kind of numbers? If we can’t do significantly better in 2009 than we did in 1883, and be massively more expensive at the same time, we can give D grades to infrastructure year over year and little will change. I can think of a few entities that deserve to be graded equally harshly.