A ?D? on the report card for infrastructure

As a doting grandfather (aka Papa), I have some great news to share. The other day my grandson Donovan (fourth grade) and granddaughter Delaney (third grade) brought home their report cards. Donovan made the honour role, with all As and Bs. Delaney, with straight As, made the principal’s list. I am proud to share this news with you!

In 2010, Engineers Australia released its infrastructure report card, rating the quality of Australia’s economic infrastructure and publishing a number of recommendations about future actions to ensure Australia’s infrastructure, in time, will meet the needs and expectations of the business and government sectors and the wider community. The overall grade was C+, a rating that reflects infrastructure that is only adequate and in need of major changes. That is a mediocre grade.

Unfortunately, the report card for the United States is not even that good. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its report card for America’s infrastructure – the overall grade was D. ASCE gave US major roads a grade of D-, reporting that one-third of the roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Congestion is a major problem, with Americans spending 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic.

This costs the economy $78.2 billion per year, which amounts to $710 per motorist. To add to the problem, poor road conditions cost motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs. While bridges usually are built to last 50 years, the average bridge in the US is 43 years old. According to the US Department of Transportation, as of December 2008, there were 600,905 bridges across the country; 72,868 (12.1 per cent) were categorised as structurally deficient and 89,024 (14.8 per cent) were functionally obsolete. The condition of the bridges earned the Department of Transportation a C on the report card.

The highest grade, C+, was for sewerage treatment facilities. Rail and parks and recreation received grades of C-. Energy got a D+ while every other category (aviation, inland waterways, rail, schools and so forth) got a D or D-. If your kids or grandkids brought home these grades you probably would not be too happy!

The bad news is nothing comes cheap. Fixing this situation will take money. The ASCE report estimates an additional $110 billion would need to be spent every year for five years to substantially improve the conditions of US roads and bridges. This is in addition to what is already being spent. An additional $79.2 billion (for a total of $189.2 billion) would be needed per year over the same period of time to repair the remainder of the US infrastructure.

The good news — if there is any — is that fixing this situation will require the use of aggregate, and lots of it. Aggregates commonly represent about 10 per cent of the total project cost for construction. Therefore, upgrading the US transportation infrastructure could require as much as $18.9 billion of aggregate per year for five years. Assuming aggregate is valued at about $10 per tonne, 1.9 billion tonnes of aggregate per year may be required for the job.

This is in addition to the regular demand for aggregate and amounts to an increase in aggregate production of about 100 per cent over 2011 levels. Even against production figures from 2006, when aggregate production was at its highest, the new demand to repair the infrastructure would require an increase in aggregate production of about 65 per cent.

This is not only good news for aggregate producers, but it is good news for the economy in general. First, almost all aggregate used in America is made in America. Next, every dollar spent on preparing aggregate results in the additional expenditure of 99.5 cents. Spend a buck on aggregate and you move $1.99 through the economy. Spend $18.9 billion on aggregate and you move $37.7 billion through the economy. And get a smoother road for the school bus to boot!

Bill Langer is a retired geologist, formerly of the US Geological Survey.
Email: Bill-Langer@researchgeologist.com or visit www.researchgeologist.com

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