Guest view: Progress made, but Pa. infrastructure still poor

Most of us take infrastructure for granted; it is only when the bridge is closed, a water main breaks, or we lose power for a significant period of time that we really think about our infrastructure and how it affects us.

However, civil engineers deal with these infrastructure issues daily, and it is part of our duty to promote the safety, health and welfare of the public in our Pennsylvania communities. Of course, businesses recognize that modern, reliable infrastructure is also essential to economic growth.

The cost of deteriorating infrastructure takes a toll on families’ disposable household income and impacts the quality and quantify of jobs in the U.S. economy. Deficient bridges, congested highways, outdated transit systems, an unreliable electric grid and leaky water pipes cost the average American family $9 a day.

This past November, the Pennsylvania State Council of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which consists of the society’s four Pennsylvania sections (Central Pennsylvania, Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh), released the “2018 Report Card for Pennsylvania’s Infrastructure.”

Overall, Pennsylvania received a grade of C-. Of the 18 categories, dams, levees, and roads received an increase in their respective grades from the 2014 report, while inland waterways and stormwater were downgraded. The grades reflect the current state of our infrastructure and is not a reflection on the agencies responsible for the infrastructure, which are often working with limited resources.

In the past four years, legislative support for infrastructure, public agency planning and a thriving economy have resulted in tangible improvements in the status of several pieces of infrastructure in Pennsylvania. Examples of these improvements since 2014 include, but are not limited to:

  • The advancement of 2,600 transportation projects into construction as a result of Act 89 funding
  • The construction of two new levee systems with 12 new systems/rehabilitations under design as a result of increased funding
  • The implementation of a program to use a public-private partnership to replace 558 bridges that were in poor condition

As Pennsylvania seeks to continue to improve our infrastructure, the report offers several suggestions to raise the grades.

  • Continuing the investment in transportation: Act 89 (signed in 2013) provided meaningful funding for multiple modes of transportation infrastructure. However, our needs are enormous and a one-size-fits-all approach to providing funding does not work anymore. The civil engineers society encourages the commonwealth to expand upon the Act 89 provision empowering revenue collection at the county level and to consider a regional basis for revenue collection.
  • Focus on water: Drinking water, wastewater and stormwater grades were some of the lowest in the 2018 report card, yet these items are critical to protecting our public health and safety. Building, replacing and updating water infrastructure will require leadership to plan to tackle new developments and improve upon existing conditions. We should encourage and support the passage of legislation that allows localities to reflect the true cost of treating, delivering, and managing water in their user fees.
  • Preparing for the future: With a significant backlog of infrastructure needs, we need to push forward new ways to approach existing problems, such as public private partnerships (P3s) to pay for additional highway lanes or using connected and autonomous vehicles to increase capacity. Lawmakers should provide funding for research, development and deployment; engineers should continue to ensure the safety of the traveling public; and private industry should have a seat at the table as decision makers explore the ramifications of new technology.

It is crucial that we find new and innovative solutions to existing problems. We cannot afford to keep infrastructure a backburner issue. Our wastewater systems need significant funding, our sewer systems are aging and stormwater infrastructure exceeds 100 years. While Act 89 provides critical funding for transportation infrastructure improvements, we still have work to do, and we believe these recommendations will help raise the grade when it comes time for the next report card.

The results of our report card can be found both in a summary brochure and full report on our website www.pareportcard.org. To view ASCE’s “2017 Infrastructure Report Card,” which provides a national view, please visit www.infrastructurereportcard.org/.

John Caperilla is president of the American Society of Civil Engineers Reading Branch and co-chair of the 2018 Report Card for Pennsylvania’s Infrastructure. He is a highway designer for Borton-Lawson, which has offices in Bethlehem, Pittsburgh, State College and Wilkes-Barre.

Cathy Farrell is co-chair of the Pennsylvania Report Card Committee and past president of the Philadelphia Section of the American Society for Civil Engineers.

Editor’s note: This column has been modified from its original version to add a co-author.

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