Hamilton Kent Blog

America’s engineers give it to us straight

Main Image

The American Society of Civil Engineers is schooling America on the state of our infrastructure—but our report card is not one that will earn a proud spot on any doting mother’s fridge.

The failing state of country-wide infrastructure is outlined in the ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.

The report card, which has been around since 1998, serves as an education tool and advocacy piece to try to help elected officials, as well as the American citizens, understand the condition of the infrastructure that’s so critical to everyone.

We spoke with Greg DiLoreto, past president of the ASCE and Chair of the Committee on America’s Infrastructure, to find out what the report means for our drinking and wastewater systems.

What were the grades?

Overall: D+

Drinking Water: D

Wastewater: D+

A “D” grade, according to the report, means that infrastructure is in “poor to fair condition, mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life.”

These grades improved slightly from 2013’s D overall, but for longevity in infrastructure, the grade needs to be much higher.


“In the report, we talk about the gap to bring infrastructure to a good condition—which is a grade of B,” said DiLoreto. “We believe if we’re going to continue our quality of life and try to maintain economic prosperity, a B is what we need.”

The current state of America’s infrastructure

There are currently 155,000 drinking water systems and 800,000 miles of public sewage pipelines across the United States.

According to the report, there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. This equals to about two trillion gallons of treated drinking water wasted, or 14 to 18 percent of each day’s treated water. In terms of untreated water, the EPA estimates that there are from 23,000 to 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows in the US each year.

The Government Accountability Office says that 99 out of America’s 674 midsized cities in the US are shrinking, meaning that fewer rate payers will make it harder to raise funds for infrastructure. As municipalities shrink, there are fewer people to fund infrastructure that needs upgrading in those smaller towns and cities.

Over the next 25 years, $150 billion in investments are needed to keep up with the need. Meanwhile, only $45 billion is estimated to be invested based on current spending. Funding by state and local governments for both drinking water and wastewater decreased between 2009 and 2014 by 22 percent—not aligned with current needs.

Funds like state revolving funds are set up to help this, but DiLoreto says it might not be enough.

“These are a financing mechanism, not a funding mechanism,” said DiLoreto. “You still have to pay back the money, and for many rural, small communities that is the only source of financing they might be able to get.”

Water utilities carry the bulk of the funding, and are replacing pipes at a rate of 0.5 percent per year—around 200 years to replace the entire system whose pipes won’t last half that long.

“There’s also a need to accommodate growth that’s going to occur over the next 20 years,” said DiLoreto. “We look to see another 56 million new users over the next two decades.”

These new users will be at a cost of $271 billion to meet those current and future needs.

Where solutions lie

A combination of proper funding and sustainable projects will help bring America up to a B grade, said DiLoreto.

Current funding levels are at 2.5 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but the ASCE is proposing budget allocations of 3.5 percent.

Not only is funding important, but ensuring that infrastructure lasts should be taken into account as well.

“Take into account the total cost of any particular infrastructure from the time you build it until the time you retire it,” said DiLoreto. “Our design and our projects have to be sustainable based on the triple bottom line of the economy, the environment and society.”

Holding each other accountable

There are two layers involved in holding each other accountable for improving infrastructure: continued investments through taxes and utility payments, and holding our government accountable.

According to the ASCE, state and local governments decreased capital spending for drinking and wastewater by 22 percent, without any significant changes in federal capital spending.

“Both presidential candidates committed to funding infrastructure. Many people that ran for Congress, ran on a platform of funding infrastructure. They were elected. Many people that ran for state and local governments, ran on a platform of infrastructure,” said DiLoreto. “Our position at ASCE is ‘now that you're elected, you need to make good on those campaign promises.’”

These promises include bills such as WIFIA, which has been authorized, but so far not appropriated to its fully authorized funding level. So far in 2017, $20 million has been appropriated of the fully authorized $35 million.

“You’ve got to put the appropriation in there or it’s just a bill,” said DiLoreto who noted that if project financing becomes available at low interest rates, utilities and agencies will use them. This may result, however, in utility rate increases due to these programs being structured with financing, and not funding.

In terms of paying those utility rates, it’s also the responsibility of the consumer.

“The fact is, at the end of the day, whether it comes through taxes or whether if comes through your rates with the federal government, we all pay for water and wastewater,” said DiLoreto. “It’s a user based system, just like your cell phone, your cable television and your electricity.”

“People have to be willing to pay the money to get this taken care of, or it’s just going to get worse.”

Click here if you want more information or to see the rest of the report card.