Recent Disasters Keep Spotlight on Infrastructure Report Card

Damage from recent tornadoes, sinkholes, and other events have drawn public attention to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ quadrennial “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.”

For something that comes around once every four years, the timing couldn’t have been better for the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure”—a report that grades 16 different segments of the nation’s infrastructure, including roadways, bridges, dams, and levees. Since this year’s report was released in March, local and national news reports have been flooded with stories about events like the I-5 bridge collapse in Seattle, tornadoes ravaging the Midwest, and a massive sinkhole crippling a major roadway in Washington, DC.

Then there was the water main break in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a DC suburb, that occurred on the same day ASCE’s report was released. The break caused a road to collapse, the water supply to run dry, and power lines to come crashing down.

“We couldn’t have planned it any better to show the impact of the lack of maintenance on infrastructure,” said Patrick J. Natale, FASAE, CAE, executive director of ASCE. “It’s just been example after example of lack of investment and not staying on top of things.”

Given those events, it should come as no surprise that America’s overall infrastructure grade was a D+, though that was an improvement over the D handed down in 2009.

In the past, ASCE has had trouble getting the report to stick in policymakers’ minds after an infrastructure disaster. “After the initial crisis, people forget,” Natale said. But this year’s recurring stories of disasters and breakdowns have kept the report in the spotlight.

“We got more hits on our report card website and more downloads of our app on the day of the I-5 bridge collapse than we got when we released it, because people were paying attention,” said Natale. “The good news is people are talking about it, we just need to get Congress to act.”

The report even caught the attention of famed political satirist and comedian Stephen Colbert, who discussed the findings on his Comedy Central program, The Colbert Report.

“He’s making light of it, but he’s making our point and attracting a different audience,” Natale said. “Each time we do this we get a little smarter on how to do it, and making the report available as an app [for the first time this year] was a move in the right direction. Visibility has been good.”

On top of the report card, Natale said, ASCE has an aggressive program dedicated to establishing codes and standards for their industry.

“We look at codes and standards all the time,” he said. “We have a standard on wind loads for buildings, and most of the wind loads have been geared toward hurricanes. Given what’s happened in Oklahoma and the Midwest, we’re having discussions about if we need to reopen it and look at different loadings for wind conditions with tornadoes.”

Ultimately, the group hopes to show that—while it wouldn’t be cheap—investing in America’s infrastructure now is crucial and would save money in the long run.

“If your roof is leaking in your house and you don’t fix it, the damage is going to go beyond just having the roof leak,” Natale said. “Once something collapses and you have failure, the replacement is a lot more expensive.”

Last month's collapse of a bridge on the Skagit River in Washington state drew attention to infrastructure weaknesses nationwide. (photo by roswellsgirl/Flickr)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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