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Bricks, mortar and our values

Times Staff Writer

“Values” worked for George Bush. Might they do the same for our congested highways? For run-down schools? For our overflowing sewers?

In another sign of the evolving language that drives American politics, the women and men responsible for the structural foundation of society want to be part of the “values” debate.

A survey to be issued today by the American Society of Civil Engineers concludes that the United States is falling apart -- and ideals that we hold dear are being eroded along the way. In report-card terms, roads, mass transit systems, power grids, water supplies, wastewater treatment facilities, schools, hazardous waste cleanup and parks earn the United States a miserable grade of D.

That’s down just a notch since the organization’s last report card in 2001, which gave the country a D-plus. What is different this time is the 137,000-member organization’s attempt to engage voters in terms they seem to care the most about: family concerns, personal safety, economic security, quality of life and old-fashioned moral principals.

In short, values.

“It almost falls into the ‘duh’ category,” said Larry Roth, a civil engineer and the society’s deputy director. “If we don’t reverse things we’ll see a threat to our economy, to our environment, to our health and to our quality of life.”

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Yet, as engineers are the first to acknowledge, the “duh” has barely registered over the widespread and long-standing “ho-hum” given to the crumbling bricks and mortar of civic life. “We have been frustrated for a number of years,” said Roth. “We’ve been trying for some time to humanize this discussion.”

Thus the 2004 presidential election generated lively debate over family issues without serious consideration of the tedious commutes that separate parents from children with no end in sight. The state of the economy drew sharp distinctions between candidates but without discussion of the estimated $117 billion or so in lost productivity and wasted expenditures caused by congested transportation. Among the findings:

* Nearly nine out of 10 California schools “have at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition.”

* For every $1 needed to maintain a safe supply of drinking water, the nation is spending only 10 cents.

* California has 44 dams that are structurally deficient. Nationwide the number exceeds 3,500.

* More than one-quarter of California’s highway bridges are either obsolete or in jeopardy, a percentage that can be extended nationwide.

* Maintenance of the nation’s electrical power plants has decreased every year since 1992.

Following the November vote, rank-and-file engineers and their organizational leaders began talking about expanding their vocabulary, searching for language that is harder to dismiss, closer to the heart. Interviews conducted in advance of today’s report found civil engineers of all ranks readying themselves to move beyond the simple engineering criteria of capacity-versus-need to tackle the “social implications” of the nation’s rotting underpinnings.

Typical was Jeanette Brown, environmental engineer at the Stamford, Conn., Water Pollution Control Authority. When it comes to sewer backups and the misery of neighborhoods where houses end up filled with fumes, “I’m speaking as a human being as well as an engineer.

“At some point -- and to my thinking, not so far from now -- we’re going to have some very serious public health problems,” she said.

Roth recalled a speech in late 2004 by a fellow engineer who proposed a bill of rights for basic public services. “That was an epiphany for me,” he said. “Everyone has a right to things like safety and health.... We have to start looking at infrastructure as a social issue.”

California traffic

For urban Californians, the report’s most familiar and sobering details concern deteriorating roads, choked rail yards and financially hungry mass transit systems.

“Americans are spending more time stuck in traffic and less time at home with their families.... It doesn’t have to be this way,” said engineer and society President William P. Henry.

One source cited for today’s report was the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M; University, which has calculated that 2004’s level of commute delays, if unchanged, would deprive an average working parent in metropolitan Los Angeles of more than three full months of a child’s upbringing, the waking hours of 98 days.

Accounting for the fact that time is also money, the engineers came up with these figures: Commuters in metropolitan Los Angeles waste $1,668 annually per person in excess fuel costs and lost time because of traffic congestion. In San Bernardino, the figure is $1,043; in San Diego, $865; in Ventura, $574. Statewide, 71% of major roads were deemed to be in “poor or mediocre” condition.

Today’s report comes as legislators in Washington and Sacramento contemplate red-ink budgets and competing lists of priorities that register larger in headlines. At the same time, there remains firm resistance in both capitals to imposing tax increases or added mandates on the private sector.

As it is, the engineers’ society estimates the cost of needed repairs and improvements to the national infrastructure at $1.6 trillion in public and private funds over the next five years -- or about $1,000 annually for every man, woman and child until 2010.

The report card is the third undertaken by the engineers since 1998, with intermittent progress updates in between. Since 2003, improvement was recorded in only two of 12 infrastructure categories. Aviation was upgraded to a D-plus from a D because of reduced travel demand and post-9/11 funding increases. Schools rose from a D-minus to a D because of increased local bond-measure support.

In both cases, the engineers warned that improvement may be short-term only.

Demand for air travel has since rebounded and surpassed pre-9/11 levels just as airports must be reconfigured to handle increasing numbers of regional jets and probably the new Airbus super jumbo jet.

As for education, the report’s authors noted that the physical conditions of school buildings have not been surveyed in detail in six years. At that time, schools needed an estimated $127 billion in upgrades and repairs, a figure that may have more than doubled in the interval. Beyond that, the report noted, “it is uncertain whether schools can meet increasing enrollment demands and the small class sizes mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The nation’s infrastructure report card

The latest report on the nation’s infrastructure tries to phrase engineering problems in a more understandable social context.

Subject: Aviation

2001: D

2005: D+

Comments: Reduced demand and modest increases in funding have eased runway gridlock.

*

Subject: Bridges

2001: C

2005: C

Comments: The percentage of deficient or obsolete bridges fell slightly, from 28.5% to 27.1%.

*

Subject: Dams

2001: D

2005: D

Comments: Despite modest gains in repairs, the number of unsafe dams has risen 33%.

*

Subject: Drinking water

2001: D

2005: D-

Comments: Federal funding to maintain standards is less than 10% of the national need.

*

Subject: Energy

2001: D+

2005: D

Comments: Transmission line bottlenecks increase consumer costs and pose blackout risks.

*

Subject: Hazardous waste

2001: D+

2005: D

Comments: Superfund cleanup funding has declined despite a growing list of contaminated sites.

*

Subject: Navigable waterways

2001: D+

2005: D-

Comments: Nearly 50% of locks on inland waterways are obsolete, and that number is increasing.

*

Subject: Public parks/ recreation

2001: --

2005: C-

Comments: Many facilities built more than 50 years ago are falling into a state of disrepair.

*

Subject: Rail

2001: --

2005: C-

Comments: Limited capacity is creating choke points and delays, and rail traffic is increasing.

*

Subject: Roads

2001: D+

2005: D

Comments: Drivers spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, costing the economy $63 billion.

*

Subject: Schools

2001: D-

2005: D

Comments: Bond initiatives provide funds, but enrollment is growing while class sizes are limited.

*

Subject: Security

2001: --

2005: I*

Comments: Engineering professionals need access to data to assess current infrastructure status.

*

Subject: Solid waste

2001: C+

2005: C+

Comments: The number of municipal landfills is falling, but regional sites are providing capacity.

*

Subject: Transit

2001: C-

2005: D+

Comments: Use has increased 21%, but recent cuts in federal funding threaten this trend.

*

Subject: Wastewater

2001: D

2005: D-

Comments: Funding has been cut, although old systems continue to discharge untreated sewage.

*

* Incomplete

Source: American Society of Civil Engineers


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